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Amy Klobuchar owned Jay Inslee on abortion rights at the Democratic debate

Klobuchar played impressive politics Wednesday night.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) speaks during the first night of the Democratic presidential debate on June 26, 2019 in Miami, Florida. 
Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) speaks during the first night of the Democratic presidential debate on June 26, 2019, in Miami. 
Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Anna North is a senior correspondent for Vox, where she covers American family life, work, and education. Previously, she was an editor and writer at the New York Times. She is also the author of three novels, including the New York Times bestseller Outlawed.

Gov. Jay Inslee may have thought he was scoring points with women voters when he anointed himself the most accomplished defender of abortion rights on the debate stage Wednesday night. Instead he opened the door for a female competitor to knock him down a peg.

The Democratic presidential candidates had been asked during Wednesday’s debate whether they supported eliminating private insurance as part of their health care plans. But the Washington governor took it to an unexpected place.

“It should not be an option in the United States of America for any insurance company to deny coverage for their right of choice,” he said. “I am the only candidate here who has passed a law protecting a woman’s reproductive rights in health insurance and the only candidate who passed a public option.

“I respect everyone’s goals and plans here,” he went on, “but we have one candidate who advanced the ball. We have to have access for everyone.”

At a time when abortion opponents are passing near-total bans around the country, Inslee was saying that while his colleagues may have reproductive rights proposals, he was the only candidate on the stage who had gotten real results for the abortion rights movement.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) fired back: “I want to say there are three women up here who fought pretty hard for a woman’s right to choose.”

The crowd cheered.

It was clearly a risky move on Inslee’s part. He’s a white man running for the Democratic nomination at a time when many Democrats are concerned about men making decisions on reproductive health that disproportionately (though not exclusively) affect women. And Inslee hasn’t made abortion rights a focus of his campaign as he goes up against a number of candidates who have set forth detailed plans on defending reproductive rights.

Inslee may have hoped to draw attention to his legitimate record on the issue. Instead, he wound up looking like a man trying to minimize the work of female legislators.

Inslee has signed reproductive rights legislation. That doesn’t make him the leader on the issue.

Inslee has defended abortion rights in his state — in 2018, he signed the Reproductive Parity Act, which requires that all insurance plans that cover maternity care also cover abortion. His campaign told Vox he would support similar legislation as president.

But as Klobuchar pointed out, there were lots of candidates onstage with strong records on abortion, even if they may not have had the executive authority to sign a bill.

Though Klobuchar mentioned the three female candidates, one of them, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI), has opposed abortion in the past, though she now says she supports abortion rights. Klobuchar has said she supports codifying Roe v. Wade into federal law and appointing only federal judges who support the landmark abortion decision, though she said in an interview with Fox News that limits on abortion in the third trimester are “very important.”

Meanwhile, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) has put forth a highly detailed reproductive rights plan that calls for repealing the Hyde Amendment, which bans federal funding for most abortions; codifying Roe in federal law; and guaranteeing private insurance coverage for abortion.

Klobuchar and Warren have also co-sponsored legislation to repeal Hyde; it won’t become law with a Republican-controlled Senate, but as Klobuchar noted, that doesn’t mean they haven’t fought.

It’s not just the women, either. Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) has also put forth an extensive reproductive rights plan, including creating a White House Office of Reproductive Freedom.

And Julián Castro responded to Inslee’s claim by saying, “I don’t believe only in reproductive freedom, but reproductive justice.” He was referring to a term coined in 1994 that describes a focus not just on the legal right to abortion but also on affordable access to a full range of reproductive health care, as well as the ability to build and care for a family.

“Just because a woman or, let’s not forget, someone in the trans community” is poor, Castro said, “doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have the right to exercise that right to choose.”

Castro’s response pointed to the fact that low-income Americans, as well as LGBTQ people, face unique barriers to abortion access, including but not limited to the Hyde Amendment, which blocks Medicaid coverage for abortions.

The exchange showed that while Republicans in recent months have been aggressive in passing abortion bans at the state level, Democratic presidential candidates have been equally aggressive in their proposals to defend abortion rights and access. Many of their proposals couldn’t be accomplished by a president without the support of Congress, and Inslee does have the distinction of having signed reproductive health legislation into law. But that doesn’t mean he’s the only candidate who has “advanced the ball.”

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