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The Democratic debate ignored abortion. That’s a loss for voters.

Reproductive rights are key for a lot of Democratic voters. They didn’t get a mention Thursday night.

Democratic presidential candidates (from left to right) South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), and Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) on stage during the Democratic Presi
Democratic presidential candidates South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), and Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) on stage during the Democratic Presidential Debate at Texas Southern University on September 12, 2019 in Houston, Texas.
Win McNamee/Getty Images

Abortion rights are shaping up to be a key issue for Democratic voters going into 2020.

But you wouldn’t know it from the third Democratic debate on Thursday night.

The moderators didn’t ask a single question about abortion or reproductive health more generally, and candidates didn’t bring it up. At least one candidate complained about the absence: Sen. Kamala Harris tweeted Thursday night that the debate “was three hours long and not one question about abortion or reproductive rights.”

It didn’t have to be this way — in the first round of debates in June, candidates had a substantive conversation about abortion rights and brought up the broader issue of reproductive justice. But there was a lot left to refine, and in subsequent debates, the candidates haven’t really done so.

Most of the 2020 Democrats agree on a few broad policy proposals on abortion: repealing the Hyde Amendment, which bans federal funding for most abortions; codifying the right to an abortion in federal statute if Roe v. Wade is overturned; and repealing the domestic and global gag rules to allow recipients of federal family planning funding to perform and refer for abortions.

But that doesn’t mean that every candidate, if elected, would make reproductive health a priority. To judge how committed the candidates are, voters need to hear them speak. And on Thursday, they didn’t get that opportunity.

Candidates weren’t asked about abortion rights on Thursday night

The Democratic debates started out well for people concerned about reproductive health. In June, Democrats tried to outdo each other as advocates for abortion rights, with Washington Gov. Jay Inslee raising some eyebrows by claiming to have the best track record on the issue. Meanwhile, Julián Castro told the crowd, “I don’t believe only in reproductive freedom, I believe in reproductive justice” — a framework that puts abortion and contraception in the context of a larger set of health and family issues, including the ability to give birth and parent children safely. Advocates have been pushing candidates to look at abortion rights through a broader reproductive justice lens for years now, and the moment felt like an important opening.

But Castro also flubbed it, talking about abortion rights for “a trans female,” when trans women can’t get pregnant. He later clarified that he supports abortion rights for trans men and nonbinary people as well as women, but his comment during the debate felt like the very beginning of a conversation that needed to continue. Democrats seemed open to talking about the ways abortion policy disproportionately impacts certain groups of Americans — like, for example, trans men, who routinely experience discrimination in health care settings and may have an especially difficult time accessing abortion care. But they weren’t quite there yet.

And they still haven’t gotten there. Of the two July debates, only one included significant talk of abortion rights: Harris pressed former Vice President Joe Biden on his recent change of position on the Hyde Amendment. This was significant — Biden was relatively late to join other 2020 Democrats in calling for an end to Hyde, and he has opposed abortion rights in the past. In the 1980s, he voted in favor of a constitutional amendment to let states overturn Roe v. Wade. His past record on abortion sets him apart, to some degree, from his competitors, and it’s useful for voters to know about that.

But one exchange does not make a substantive conversation. And it certainly didn’t bring up the nuanced issues of reproductive justice that Castro started to touch on in the first debate.

Abortion matters to American voters. In a poll earlier this year, 79 percent of likely in-person Iowa Democratic caucus-goers picked support for abortion rights as a must-have for a candidate — more than any other issue.

And a lot is at stake. Near-total bans on abortion have swept the country this year, and while they’re tied up in the courts, they could one day reach the Supreme Court — where the next president will very likely get to make at least one appointment. Meanwhile, the Trump administration’s domestic gag rule on Title X family planning funds will soon result in the closure of two Planned Parenthood clinics in Ohio, which is likely to mean patients going without contraceptive care and STI testing.

Broadly speaking2020, Democratic candidates have made the same promises on abortion rights. But that’s all the more reason voters need to hear from them on the debate stage: people for whom reproductive health is a voting issue deserve to hear from each candidate why he or she would be the best person to safeguard it. And they deserve to hear it in a debate, not just in a single-issue forum which, while illuminating, doesn’t get the same kind of coverage or allow for the same back-and-forth.

The president of the United States can’t unilaterally end Hyde or codify Roe in statute — that’s up to Congress. But as the Trump administration has shown, a president can do a lot to expand access to abortion, birth control, and other reproductive health services — or to restrict them. Democratic voters deserve a chance to hear what each candidate would do — and they deserve a debate that treats reproductive health like the major election issue it is.


Listen to Today, Explained

The governor of Alabama signed the nation’s strictest anti-abortion bill into law. Vox’s Anna North explains what the legislation means and Sean Rameswaram speaks with Eric Johnston, the man who helped write it.

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