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Democratic debates: why did none of the candidates want to say the word abortion?

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Hannah-Rose Yee
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Kamala Harris

Despite talking about the Hyde Amendment and women’s “reproductive health”, neither Joe Biden or Kamala Harris could say the word abortion itself. This has to change.

Joe Biden didn’t stand a chance.

After being thoroughly grilled by Kamala Harris during the first round of Democratic debates in June, he went into the second round – his rematch with Harris – on the back foot. And then he took that foot and put it firmly and resolutely into his mouth.

“Go easy on me, kid,” Biden said in a manner he obviously thought was charming to Harris, who brushed it off expertly. “I didn’t really think much about it,” Harris told CNN’s Anderson Cooper after the debate. “We’re both on that stage running for president… nobody’s going to define me on that stage.” But the internet was outraged. “She’s a senator and a bad ass. Not a kid,” one Twitter user wrote.  

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They’re right. She is a senator and a bad ass and she’s running for president. She’s not a kid. But there was a bigger story from the debate – one that expressly impacts women. How come not one of the Democratic candidates up on that stage said the word abortion throughout the entirety of the debate? How did abortion become the word that shall not be named? 

Joe Biden and Kamala Harris at the Democratic debates.
Joe Biden and Kamala Harris at the Democratic debates.

Biden and Harris had an entire conversation about abortion without mentioning the word once. Harris, who took Biden to task regarding his abrupt, if woefully belated, volte-face on the Hyde Amendment – a piece of legislation that forbids federal funds to be used to pay for abortion except in life-threatening cases – without saying abortion at all.

“Why did it take so long to change your position on the Hyde Amendment… Until you were running for president?” Harris asked Biden.

“Because there was not full funding for all reproductive services,” Biden responded. Harris pressed him further, asking him why resources were withheld to poor women who needed access to “reproductive healthcare”.

“The Hyde Amendment was available because there was other access for those kinds of services provided privately,” Biden said. “I support a woman’s right to choose. I support it as a constitutional right… I will move as president to see that Congress legislates that.”

Reproductive services. Reproductive healthcare. But nobody could say the word abortion.

At least Biden and Harris’ night of debates touched on the subject obliquely, via the Hyde Amendment. Because on the first night of debates, which featured Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and Marianne Williamson, the topic of abortion wasn’t raised once over the course of the three-hour event. Not a single time. Which, considering that several states across the US are attempting to wheel back access to abortion in some truly shocking ways, is disappointing.

“Tonight, voters missed an opportunity to hear how Democratic candidates will approach a fundamental issue that impacts their lives,” Planned Parenthood tweeted after the first round of debates. “Candidates spent more than 30 minutes debating health care, but it’s meaningless if we cannot access it.”

Planned Parenthood continued: “In nearly three hours there was not on question on abortion access or reproductive health care – despite the fact that the Trump administration is actively trying to dismantle our nation’s program for affordable birth control with a gag rule.” 

“As the American people decide their vote, they deserve to hear about the candidates’ visions for how they will protect and expand access to abortion. We call on the Democratic National Committee and CNN to ensure that efforts to protect abortion access are discussed.” 

Planned Parenthood made the fair point that it can’t always be the onus of the candidates themselves to bring up the subject of abortion. We know that Harris and Kirsten Gillibrand, who was also in the debate alongside Harris and Biden, believe in protecting a woman’s right to abortion, and we know that they have a plan to make sure that abortion law restriction never happens again. Both of them have spoken on this very subject on several occasions. So why didn’t the moderators from CNN ask them about these plans so that they could discuss them on such a big platform? Why didn’t the moderators from CNN push the other candidates in the debate, including Biden but also Andrew Yang and Cory Booker, on the subject of abortion? 

This resonant silence on behalf of the moderators is why the hashtag #AskAboutAbortion, which was first circulated in the 2016 presidential race, is being used again. 

Not that anyone on the moderator panel appeared to be listening. Let’s hope that by the time the third round of debates is here – yes, there’s another round of debates, and another one after that – in September abortion will be at the top of the agenda. 

Images: Getty

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Hannah-Rose Yee

Hannah-Rose Yee is a writer based in London. You can find her on the internet talking about movies, television and Chris Pine.

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