Nancy Starner works in an independent abortion clinic in Cleveland. The views expressed here are her own.
How was one of the biggest issues facing American women brought up during the first and only vice presidential debate last night? In a softball question about faith.
But let's rewind. As I was getting ready to watch last night’s vice presidential debate between Sen. Tim Kaine and Gov. Mike Pence, I learned that that GOP had already — accidentally — published a draft of a post declaring that Pence had won the debate. Clearly it was a mistake, the click of a button by accident, and the post was swiftly taken down. Perhaps not surprisingly, the Back to the Future-esque post predicted that Pence’s biggest wins would come from talking about the economy and attacking Hillary Clinton. What the post failed to predict, however, was a heated exchange on a topic that is so important to me and millions of other women: abortion.
I don't think I was the only woman who tuned in to the debate especially to see how the candidates would address abortion rights. In fact, the hashtag #AskAboutAbortion has been used thousands of times since the first presidential debate last week, when the topic didn't come up at all.
People across the country were urging moderators to ask the candidates about a topic that affects so many of us. In fact, 1 in 3 American women will have an abortion in her lifetime, and most of us know and love someone who has had an abortion, whether we know it or not.
You see, I spend my days working in an independent abortion clinic in Ohio, one of the largest in the country. Every day, women walk into our clinic with plans for a better future. I had an abortion when I was 24. It’s a decision I’ve never regretted for a minute, and I believe deeply that my abortion enabled me to build the life I am grateful to be living today.
Here's how I wish this crucial issue had been talked about last night — and what I hope to hear during the second presidential debate this Sunday.
Abortion rights aren't a religious issue.
Instead of asking Kaine and Pence directly about their stances on abortion, moderator Elaine Quijano asked how both candidates have balanced their faiths with their roles as public servants. The fact that the word "abortion" wasn't even in the question provides an insight into how severely it is stigmatized.
Access to abortion care affects millions of Americans each year, and Americans deserve to know if their leaders will support policies that help women, transgender men, and gender non-conforming people access it. In my work, I have seen how this safe, routine medical procedure lets people finish school, care for the families they have, and plan for the families they want someday. And a candidate's relationship with God has nothing to do with.
Too often, faith is the only lens through which we view abortion, which leaves us constantly debating morality when we should be discussing how we can remove obstacles for the people who need this care. Sure, faith is one part of a person’s decisions about pregnancy and abortion. But for many women, it’s far from the only factor. Finances, love, relationships, health, careers, commitments, hopes and dreams — these all shape our decisions about pregnancy and abortion, too. It's time to consider abortion, not only from the angle of faith, but also from all the experiences that each person brings to their decision about a pregnancy.
We need to keep talking about the Hyde amendment.
Last night, Pence brought up the Hyde amendment, which bans federal funds such as Medicaid from being used to pay for abortions. Pence brought the law up in the context of criticizing Clinton and the Democratic Party platform for pledging to repeal it.
Negative or not, it was historic that vice presidential candidates were discussing this discriminatory policy that has harmed women living in poverty for 40 years. I believe it's thanks to the work of grassroots women of color leaders that the Hyde amendment is finally being discussed on a national stage. I hope Clinton and Trump pick up that conversation where Pence and Kaine left off, because women on Medicaid deserve the right to make their own choices, too.
Let's push candidates on their policies and voting records, not just their broad views.
Once the debate really turned to abortion rights, Kaine expressed his broad support for the protections laid out in Roe v. Wade and the constitutional right of each person to make her own decisions about pregnancy. While his record as the governor of Virginia is mixed on abortion rights, his more recent record as a senator is stronger. It’s clear that Kaine listened to his constituents about the harms of denying abortion care and coverage. It's also clear that he has come to understand that abortion is a social justice issue. And he's made it clear that his views on abortion are both compatible with his faith and informed by it.
In contrast, Pence has an extreme anti-choice record in Indiana. While Pence tried to back away from Trump’s statements that women who have abortions should be punished, the policies he supports expose the truth. In addition to supporting the Hyde amendment, Pence has passed draconian anti-abortion policies in his home state. Those laws led to the arrest and imprisonment of Purvi Patel after she ended her pregnancy and sought medical care.
Trump and Pence may try to hide from the “punishment” rhetoric now, but that’s exactly what their policies would do.
The words candidates use matter, too.
Last night, Pence categorically described the decision to have an abortion as "heartbreaking." As a woman who has had an abortion, I’m insulted that Pence would presume to know what was in my heart — or any woman’s heart — when deciding to end a pregnancy.
Each woman’s circumstances are different; we can’t pretend to walk in anyone else's shoes. As for me, Pence got it very wrong. I don't regret my decision, and this kind of gross generalization just proves that he isn’t interested in what women actually experience or think. Like his running mate, he’s got it all figured out for us.
Kaine, on the other hand, brought up a question we should not just be asking of our candidates, but also of ourselves: "Why don’t you trust women?" Perhaps more than any other part of the exchange, this, for me, exemplified the conversation we need to be having about abortion.
After all, it’s not for Pence, or Kaine, or me, or you to decide. We aren't in the position to deny care for, or judge a woman who is choosing to end her pregnancy. Let's stop asking why women make this choice, and instead trust them to do what’s best for themselves and their families. It's how my coworkers and I treat the people coming to us for care, and it's how I expect both campaigns to treat them, too.
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