With hundreds of new abortion restrictions introduced this year in state legislatures, constant court battles over extreme abortion bans, and Roe v. Wade hanging in the balance, it was long overdue that a Democratic debate would address reproductive rights. Last night during the fourth Democratic presidential primary debate, it finally happened, and (unsurprisingly) it took a female moderator to get the ball rolling: CNN’s Erin Burnett asked Sen. Kamala Harris what she would do to keep states from enacting laws like the one in Ohio banning abortion after six weeks of pregnancy, a time when most women don’t even know they’re pregnant. This also gave the other candidates an opportunity to discuss their own proposals.
Harris, who had lamented the lack of discussion of reproductive healthcare earlier in the night, was ready. She detailed her plan, announced back in May, to keep state governments from continuing to enact unconstitutional abortion bans. If elected president, Harris said she would require states and localities with a pattern of violating Roe v. Wade to seek permission from the U.S. Department of Justice before implementing any new abortion laws. (Of course, Congress would have to approve the plan, which may prove a challenge if Republicans continue to control the Senate.)
“The reality is that while we still have these state legislators who are outdated and out of touch, mostly men who are telling women what to do with their bodies, there needs to be accountability and consequence,” Harris said.
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Harris’ proposal is unique in its judicial approach. While now, the burden is on legal activists to put up court challenges to these bans, her plan would shift the burden to the states, who would have to show the Justice Department that their laws don't violate the precedent of Roe.
After Harris finished speaking, Burnett asked Sen. Amy Klobuchar what she would do to keep states from enacting these restrictive bans. Klobuchar has a strong pro-choice record and has spoken out against the recent abortion bans, but has not offered a proposal as explicit as Harris’.
"I would codify Roe v. Wade and make it the law of the land,” Klobuchar responded. “You, Donald Trump, are not on the side of women. You are not on the side of people of this country when over 75% of people want to keep Roe v. Wade on the books, when over 90% of people want to make sure we have available contraception. You defunded Planned Parenthood. I would fund it again."
Asked the same question, Sen. Cory Booker, who has positioned himself as an ally on the issue, said: "[These laws are] not just attacks on one of the most sacrosanct ideals in our country, liberty, the ability to control your own body, but they're another example of people trying to punish, trying to penalize, trying to criminalize poverty, because this is disproportionately affecting low-income women in this country.” He also promised to create an Office of Reproductive Freedom and Reproductive Rights in the White House to “make sure we begin to fight back on a systematic attempt that's gone on for decades to undermine Roe v. Wade."
It was Rep. Tulsi Gabbard who strayed from the pack, explaining that she agrees with Hillary Clinton on this issue despite disagreeing with her on many others. “When she said abortion should be ‘safe, legal, and rare,’ I think she's correct,” Gabbard said. “We see how the consequences of laws that you're referring to can often lead to a dangerous place, as we've seen them as they're passed in other countries, where a woman who has a miscarriage past that six weeks could be imprisoned.”
Clinton said during her 2008 campaign for president that she believes abortion should be “safe, legal, and rare,” but in her 2016 campaign, she dropped the word “rare” from discussions, leading some to think that she had recalibrated her position. In 2016, Clinton was praised by reproductive rights advocates for her support of abolishing the Hyde Amendment — which prohibits the use of federal funds for abortion, except in cases of rape, incest, or when a woman's life is in danger — the first time a major political party platform called for doing so.
Gabbard added that, like her colleagues, she supports codifying Roe v. Wade, but she also believes in “making sure that, during the third trimester, abortion is not an option unless the life or severe health consequences of a woman are at risk.”
Even though Gabbard has made these views known before, she is not a well-known candidate and the debate introduced her to a wider audience, some of whom criticized her stance saying instead that abortion should be “safe, legal, and free.” Given that abortion after 20 weeks is very rare, incredibly painful for many families, and the issue is used by anti-choice Republicans to rile up the base with talk of “murdering babies,” many reproductive rights advocates criticized Gabbard for “parroting anti-abortion talking points.”
After Gabbard spoke, the candidates sparred on the best way to protect Roe v. Wade. Moderator Burnett pointed out that the Supreme Court, while theoretically non-partisan, is currently made up of five Republican-appointed justices and four appointed by Democrats. The court recently announced that it will hear a case on abortion rights. Burnett asked former Vice President Joe Biden: “If Roe v. Wade is overturned on your watch and you can't pass legislation in Congress, would you seek to add justices to the Supreme Court to protect women's reproductive rights?” (The court does not have a set number of justices.)
Biden responded that he would not “get into court-packing,” and went on to point out his own reproductive rights record, touting his vote against ultra-conservative Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork back in 1987. (Biden famously reversed his position on the Hyde Amendment earlier this year.) Mayor Pete Buttigieg, on the other hand, said he supports expanding the court from nine to 15 justices. “I'm not talking about packing the court just with people who agree with me, although I certainly will appoint people who share my values, for example, the idea that women's reproductive freedom is an American right,” he said. “What I'm talking about is reforms that will depoliticize the court. We can't go on like this, where every single time there is a vacancy, we have this apocalyptic ideological firefight over what to do next.”
Julián Castro and Sen. Elizabeth Warren also said they’re not in favor of expanding the Supreme Court. Castro instead proposed looking at the court’s term limits, and Warren said, “We should not leave this to the Supreme Court. We should do it through democracy, because we can,” since the vast majority of Americans support Roe v. Wade.
While the Democratic candidates may have different approaches, the fact that abortion rights were discussed at all is a step in the right direction. “The stakes have never been this high,” Kelley Robinson, executive director of Planned Parenthood Votes, said in a statement provided to Refinery29. “When our next president is sworn into office, the protections for safe, legal abortion that have been guaranteed by Roe v. Wade for nearly 50 years may be gutted. I’m pleased that the Democratic candidates for president took the opportunity to share their plans to restore, protect, and expand the reproductive freedoms that have been weakened by Donald Trump and his allies.”