Reproductive freedom activists have long wanted a forum dedicated to abortion. On Saturday, they got one.
Planned Parenthood hosted 20 Democrats running for president at the University of South Carolina, where activists questioned candidates about their record and vision on the issue. During the day-long event, candidates demonstrated their understanding of abortion — whether they view it as health care and understand that it intersects with identities like gender and class.
“How are you going to expand access to sexual and reproductive health care including abortion,” audience members asked each presidential candidate, prefacing the question by sharing their own stories. They recounted their experiences, sometimes having had one abortion, sometimes three. Each story was distinct, since abortion access is predicated on each person’s life circumstance.
The backdrop to Saturday’s forum is that the right to abortion is under constant attack. In 2019 alone, nine states passed laws restricting abortion, with seven states passing near-total bans, although none are in effect. Conservatives are especially emboldened right now because they believe they will be able to use one of these bans to overturn Roe v. Wade, which established the constitutional right to abortion in 1973.
The forum gave Democrats the opportunity to directly tell voters what they intend to do to defend a right that has been chipped away at for decades. But it also gave them a chance to talk about how they would expand access.
“Let this sink in for a minute, if every one of the 13 million-plus Planned Parenthood supporters showed up at the ballot box — if we activated our network — we would be the difference in this election,” said Kelley Robinson, the executive director of Planned Parenthood Action Fund.
The various presidential candidates talked about their abortion proposals — that is, if they had one. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (NY), who was the first candidate to release a plan in early May, restated her commitment to only nominating federal judges who support Roe and to codify the right to abortion into federal law.
“I will guarantee that no matter where in this country, all 50 states, you will have access to safe, legal abortion procedures,” Gillibrand told the audience.
Sen. Kamala Harris (CA) used her time to talk about a plan she announced in late May, the Reproductive Rights Act, which mimics the Voting Rights Act of 1965 by requiring states with a history of passing restrictions to get federal permission before enacting abortion laws. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), alternatively, spoke about his Medicare for All bill, which covers abortion care.
Every candidate said they’d work to protect Roe if elected president, but not everyone specified how. All of them also said they support repealing the Hyde amendment, a federal provision that bars Medicaid from paying for abortion in most circumstances. The Hyde amendment, which first passed in 1976 and passes annually through appropriations, led to one woman’s death and countless others being forced to give birth because they couldn’t afford to pay for the abortions themselves.
Not everyone has a record of supporting legislation that guarantees federal funding for abortion services. Former Rep. John Delaney (MD), for example, was never a co-sponsor of the EACH Woman Act while in Congress. The EACH Woman Act is championed by various reproductive rights and justice organizations, as it requires every federal government program that provides health care — including Medicaid — to cover abortion.
Some candidates didn’t appear as prepared as others. Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, for example, couldn’t cite specific policies when asked what he’d do to expand access to abortion, only to say ” we will use every tool and resource.” He also spoke about his own background and record in office, including supporting Planned Parenthood, when asked what he’d do to address racial disparities in health care.
“He seemed very uncomfortable,” said Laurie Bertram Roberts, an activist in the audience, told ThinkProgress.
When former Vice President Joe Biden spoke at the event, he didn’t say the word abortion — even after a veteran shared her own powerful story about when she was raped during her time in the Army. TRICARE, military insurance, wouldn’t pay for her abortion care.
“Your health care should cover your circumstance,” he told her.
Robinson also gave Biden the opportunity to speak to voters who are skeptical of his “mixed record” on abortion. Just recently Biden flipped his position on the Hyde amendment. Early in his career, as senator, Biden voted to void Roe by returning abortion rights to the states.
“First of all, I’m not sure about the ‘mixed record’ part,” said Biden, calling his voting record “100 percent” before the mic turned off. When his mic turned back on, he pivoted to talking about health care more broadly.
Kudos to all the candidates today who are largely embracing saying the word ABORTION. I’ve been doing this work 20 years and this is historic.
— Destiny Lopez (@DLoTweets) June 22, 2019
The forum wasn’t just about abortion. That’s because any discussion on the subject provides key insights into other issues, since abortion rights boil down to individual autonomy. The forum provided the candidates the opportunity to talk about class, immigration, prison reform, and voting rights — and some took advantage of the opportunity.
“What’s going on in this country right now is not just an attack on women,” said Sen. Elizabeth Warren (MA), when asked about the slew of state restrictions passed this year. “It’s an attack on women who have fewer resources. It’s a class attack on women. It’s a race attack.”
Sen. Cory Booker (NJ) told the crowd that “women that are incarcerated, undocumented immigrants that are incarcerated — they deserve to have access to health care because health care is a human right.”
Julián Castro took the opportunity to talk about transgender rights. When asked by a nonbinary activist about abortion access for transgender people, Castro — a former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development — vowed to sign the Equality Act, legislation which prohibits discrimination based on sex, sexual orientation, and gender identity in a wide variety of areas.
Even before making any campaign promises to expand access to the LGBTQ community and to fight against the stigmas they face, Castro asked what the abortion storyteller’s preferred pronoun is — the first candidate to ask such a question during the forum.
This story has been corrected to reflect the fact that Bernie Sanders is a senator from Vermont.