When it comes to reproductive health and rights in the current political climate, differentiating between candidates of similar political persuasions can be a daunting task. Between the parties, some patterns emerge: the Democratic candidates, for example, tend to focus on declaring their support for Roe v. Wade, usually based on the argument that women have a right to privacy and a right to make decisions about their own bodies. The Republican candidates, on the other hand, tend to focus on their opposition to Roe v. Wade, usually based on the argument that abortion is a state's issue at best and a premeditated murder at worst. But when did the candidates' views on Roe v. Wade become the exclusive test of their commitment to sexual and reproductive health? The longer our national conversation focuses on the one-dimensional poles of support for or opposition to Roe, the further it drifts from the nuances and contradictions amidst which people actually live their lives and make their decisions, and the less relevant it becomes for those who have grown tired of hearing politicians glorify or vilify the landmark 1973 Supreme Court decision.
As important as it is to know where the candidates stand on the issue of safe and legal abortion, we need a broader conversation: one that also addresses what women and couples need to prevent unintended pregnancies, and what women and couples need to carry wanted pregnancies to term, for starters. But we also need a national conversation that pays attention to the particular challenges facing adolescents and low-income women, that acknowledges the importance of basing health policies on science rather than ideology, and that examines how U.S. policies impact the sexual and reproductive health of women overseas. It's only when we start having these conversations as a routine part of the political process that we will begin building the culture of reproductive justice that we all truly deserve.
In October, RH Reality Check developed a questionnaire for the Democratic and Republican presidential candidates, designed to help our readers distinguish between the various contenders' positions on sexual and reproductive health and rights — beyond the sole issue of abortion. We sent each campaign a 14-question form, inviting them either to complete it or to participate in our feature in some other way — for example, by submitting a statement, answering selected questions, or granting us a brief interview. We contacted the headquarters of each campaign, and in some cases, we also reached out to the Iowa headquarters.
Our questions were designed to get under the surface of the candidates' rhetoric on reproductive rights and clarify how far each one was willing to go to support concrete policy changes to back up his or her stated beliefs. For example, what specific measures would the candidates put into place to ensure support for women who choose to become mothers (prenatal care, maternity leave, childcare, healthcare for children)? If elected president, would they continue to allow federal funding for abstinence-only-until-marriage programs, despite studies that have called those programs' effectiveness and ethics into question? Would they continue to allow public funding for crisis pregnancy centers, despite evidence that they actively misinform pregnant women? All of the candidates have something to say about healthcare, but how would each of their healthcare plans specifically address sexual and reproductive health, family planning, pregnancy, and HIV/AIDS? Did the candidates who supported women's right to access contraception also support contraceptive equity in insurance coverage? We also asked all of the candidates to clarify their position on adolescents' right to access confidential reproductive health and family planning services, including their right to access emergency contraception over-the-counter (young people under 18 currently need a prescription for EC). We also asked them whether, if elected president, they would pledge to overturn the Global Gag Rule or reinstate funding for UNFPA.
Of course, we did also have some specific questions about safe and legal abortion, in an effort to move the discussion beyond an exclusive focus on Roe v. Wade. All of the Democratic candidates identify as "pro-choice," but we were curious to hear how many believed that federal Medicaid should continue to deny low-income women funds for safe and legal abortions, and we also wanted to know if they supported parental consent laws for adolescents. Among the Republican candidates who have said they believe that Roe should be overturned, we wanted to know if there were any circumstances under which they felt abortion should remain legal (if a woman's life of health were in danger, for example, or if the pregnancy was a result of rape or incest)? What kinds of penalties did they support for women who sought illegal abortions? Did candidates who opposed abortion also oppose contraception and comprehensive sexuality education? And did candidates who advocated increased adoptions as a means to "reduce the abortion rate" support equal adoption rights for gay and lesbian couples?
Great questions, right? Now, the bad news…among the Republican presidential candidates, Sen. McCain's and Mayor Giuliani's campaigns were the only ones to respond to our requests. Representatives from Sen. McCain's campaign confirmed receipt of the questionnaire and told us that they were working on it, but after several follow-up phone calls and emails, we never received the completed questionnaire. Mayor Giuliani's campaign declined to participate, stating that the campaign did not do questionnaires. Our invitation to participate in an alternative form went unanswered. Representatives from Gov. Huckabee's, Rep. Paul's, Gov. Romney's, Rep. Tancredo's, and Sen. Thompson's campaigns never responded to our phone calls and emails.
On the Democrats' side, we received completed questionnaires from Sen. Edwards's and Sen. Obama's campaigns, and Sen. Dodd's campaign submitted a statement. Unfortunately, due to a technical mix-up, we were not able to deliver a questionnaire to Rep. Kucinich's campaign until very recently, which did not allow sufficient time for it to be completed. As a result, we have agreed to post Rep. Kucinich's responses as part of a supplementary feature, if and when we receive them. Sen. Biden's campaign declined to complete the questionnaire or otherwise participate in the feature. After initial contact was made with a member of the press team at Sen. Clinton's Iowa headquarters, repeat follow-up emails and phone calls went unanswered. We also made contact with representatives from the national headquarters of Gov. Richardson's and Sen. Gravel's campaigns, but in the end, neither of the campaigns were able to meet our deadline.
We're grateful to the candidates who took the time to respond to our requests, and we wish that we had more information to share, but the silence of the majority is a statement in itself. Yes, the campaigns are busy, but an informed citizenry is part of the democratic process, and our leaders and aspiring leaders have a responsibility to be accountable to their current and future constituents. Perhaps the campaigns feel that the political risks associated with clarifying their candidates' positions on "controversial" reproductive rights issues outweigh the political benefits of staying silent. But the benefits are just that: political. Reproductive health may be controversial, but it's not a special interest: it's a basic human right. And democracy depends not just on voting, but on building and maintaining a culture of dialogue, debate, and transparency between citizens and their elected representatives. Anyone aspiring to hold public office should embrace, rather than avoid, the responsibilities implicit in such a culture.
Summaries of the participating candidates' answers, in addition to links to their completed questionnaires and statements, can be found below. For the candidates who declined to participate, we have provided brief summaries of anything in their public record or available literature that could give a sense of how they might have answered the questions we asked. More information about all of the candidates, with a particular focus on their records and rhetoric concerning sexual and reproductive health and rights, can be found in our Election 2008 coverage.
Check out Sen. John Edwards's completed questionnaire.
Check out Sen. Barack Obama's completed questionnaire.
Read the statement from Sen. Chris Dodd's campaign.
What about the Democratic contenders who didn't respond to our questionnaire? We did their homework for them, mining through their previous public statements to find their positions, right here.
And the Republicans? Concrete information on the Republican candidates' positions and commitments on reproductive health and rights is harder to come by, since their websites generally only include information about the issue of abortion. But here's what we were able to come up with.