Will the First Presidential Debate Focus on Reproductive Rights?


Economy. Healthcare. Education. Each of these topics are expected to receive a great deal of attention as President Barack Obama and his Republican challenger Mitt Romney face off in the first of three debates prior to the November election.

The first debate will cover “domestic policy,” and is expected to have a heavy focus on the economy and healthcare. Host Jim Leher of PBS’s Newshour will ask six questions, each followed by 15 minutes of debate between the two candidates. But it’s still not clear whether reproductive and sexual health and rights will be part of the discussion.

In the 2008 presidential debates, the politics of a woman’s right to self-determination regarding whether and when to have children and under what circumstances barely made it onto the radar. No questions on abortion were asked of the candidates until the third and final debate, and even then the questions were simply about whether or not they would appoint judges to the Supreme Court who would uphold or overturn Roe v. Wade. The responses were entirely lackluster:

[Moderatior Bob] SCHIEFFER: All right. Let’s stop there and go to another question. And this one goes to Senator McCain. Senator McCain, you believe Roe v. Wade should be overturned. Senator Obama, you believe it shouldn’t.

Could either of you ever nominate someone to the Supreme Court who disagrees with you on this issue? Senator McCain?

MCCAIN: I would never and have never in all the years I’ve been there imposed a litmus test on any nominee to the court. That’s not appropriate to do.

SCHIEFFER: But you don’t want Roe v. Wade to be overturned?

MCCAIN: I thought it was a bad decision. I think there were a lot of decisions that were bad. I think that decisions should rest in the hands of the states. I’m a federalist. And I believe strongly that we should have nominees to the United States Supreme Court based on their qualifications rather than any litmus test. Now, let me say that there was a time a few years ago when the United States Senate was about to blow up. Republicans wanted to have just a majority vote to confirm a judge and the Democrats were blocking in an unprecedented fashion.

We got together seven Republicans, seven Democrats. You were offered a chance to join. You chose not to because you were afraid of the appointment of, quote, “conservative judges.”

I voted for Justice Breyer and Justice Ginsburg. Not because I agreed with their ideology, but because I thought they were qualified and that elections have consequences when presidents are nominated. This is a very important issue we’re talking about.

Senator Obama voted against Justice Breyer and Justice Roberts on the grounds that they didn’t meet his ideological standards. That’s not the way we should judge these nominees. Elections have consequences. They should be judged on their qualifications. And so that’s what I will do.

I will find the best people in the world — in the United States of America who have a history of strict adherence to the Constitution. And not legislating from the bench.

SCHIEFFER: But even if it was someone — even someone who had a history of being for abortion rights, you would consider them?

MCCAIN: I would consider anyone in their qualifications. I do not believe that someone who has supported Roe v. Wade that would be part of those qualifications. But I certainly would not impose any litmus test.

SCHIEFFER: All right.

OBAMA: Well, I think it’s true that we shouldn’t apply a strict litmus test and the most important thing in any judge is their capacity to provide fairness and justice to the American people.

And it is true that this is going to be, I think, one of the most consequential decisions of the next president. It is very likely that one of us will be making at least one and probably more than one appointments and Roe versus Wade probably hangs in the balance.

Now I would not provide a litmus test. But I am somebody who believes that Roe versus Wade was rightly decided. I think that abortion is a very difficult issue and it is a moral issue and one that I think good people on both sides can disagree on.

But what ultimately I believe is that women in consultation with their families, their doctors, their religious advisers, are in the best position to make this decision. And I think that the Constitution has a right to privacy in it that shouldn’t be subject to state referendum, any more than our First Amendment rights are subject to state referendum, any more than many of the other rights that we have should be subject to popular vote.

OBAMA: So this is going to be an important issue. I will look for those judges who have an outstanding judicial record, who have the intellect, and who hopefully have a sense of what real-world folks are going through.

I’ll just give you one quick example. Senator McCain and I disagreed recently when the Supreme Court made it more difficult for a woman named Lilly Ledbetter to press her claim for pay discrimination.

For years, she had been getting paid less than a man had been paid for doing the exact same job. And when she brought a suit, saying equal pay for equal work, the judges said, well, you know, it’s taken you too long to bring this lawsuit, even though she didn’t know about it until fairly recently.

We tried to overturn it in the Senate. I supported that effort to provide better guidance to the courts; John McCain opposed it.

I think that it’s important for judges to understand that if a woman is out there trying to raise a family, trying to support her family, and is being treated unfairly, then the court has to stand up, if nobody else will. And that’s the kind of judge that I want.

SCHIEFFER: Time’s up.

Since then, however, the landscape has changed so dramatically that everything has to be questioned, and openly.

According to NPR, there were approximately 26 Republican presidential debates this primary season, depending on the exact definition of the term. In those debates, abortion rights—or exactly how far the candidates were prepared to go in order to overturn them—were covered again and again in debate after debate. Candidates questioned each other over pledges to refuse to appoint any pro-choice person to any position in their administration or the judiciary, over whether it was acceptable to allow women who had been raped to have access to abortion, and whether “life” has to be protected from the moment a sperm met an egg. 

It was that last topic that showed the power of the extreme anti-choice arm of the conservative movement. Former Senator Newt Gingrich during his roller coaster ride from longshot to frontrunner and back again made the mistake at one point of stating life began at implantation, not fertilization, bringing the wrath of anti-choice extremists down upon him.  Within a day he had changed his position, putting a public statement online saying life began at conception and that he supported 14th amendment protection for fertilized eggs.

To survive and eventually win the GOP nomination, Romney, too, committed himself to the most extreme of anti-choice positions. In one early New Hampshire debate, contender Rick Santorum was asked if he truly believed Romney’s conversion to full dedication to the “pro-life” cause. Santorum subtly questions Romney’s “authenticity” on the subject, which Romney then empathetically denied.

[Host, CNN’s John] KING: Governor Romney, let me give you — take — take 20 or 30 seconds, if there’s a Republican out there for whom this important, who questions your authenticity on the issue?

ROMNEY: People have had a chance to look at my record and look what I’ve said as — as I’ve been through that last campaign. I believe people understand that I’m firmly pro-life. I will support justices who believe in following the Constitution and not legislating from the bench. And I believe in the sanctity of life from the very beginning until the very end.

KING: Is there anybody here who believes that that’s an issue in the campaign, or is it case closed?

(UNKNOWN): Case closed.

KING: Case closed it is. All right.

The issue of controlling a woman’s ability to decide if and when to have children continued through the debates, even culminating in a discussion of the responsibility that access to the birth control pill plays in the alleged declining morality of the country. In the final debate in Mesa, Arizona, after Santorum stated that the pill is dangerous and causes the fracturing of the American family, Romney steps in to agree.

ROMNEY: John, you know, I think as Rick has just said, this isn’t an argument about contraceptives, this is a discussion about, are we going to have a nation which preserves the foundation of the nation, which is the family, or are we not? And Rick is absolutely right.

When you have 40 percent of kids being born out of wedlock, and among certain ethnic groups the vast majority being born out of wedlock, you ask yourself, how are we going to have a society in the future? Because these kids are raised in poverty in many cases, they’re in abusive settings. The likelihood of them being able to finish high school or college drops dramatically in single-family homes. And we haven’t been willing to talk about this.

And when we have programs that say we’re going to teach abstinence in schools, the liberals go crazy and try and stop us from doing that.

The hot topics of the primary were abortion, birth control, and the candidates’ plans to defund Planned Parenthood as well as repeal the Affordable Care Act, which has provided an expansion of insurance coverage and accessible contraception, and despite all of the Republicans being mostly of one mind on the issues—albeit with some minor nuances — it seems that the debate between two candidates with very different views should merit a large portion of a debate over domestic policy. Especially when you consider how much the economy, job creation, the housing crisis, health care, education and the social safety net programs all heavily revolve around a woman’s right to either get pregnant, prevent or even end a pregnancy when she or her family aren’t ready.

As the Associated Press reports, the candidates’ beliefs on abortion and birth control are extremely divergent this year, in a way that “would you appoint a judge who would overturn Roe?” just won’t cover. But when the AP says “Whether women have access to abortion services and birth control is a long-standing and divisive issue in politics,” they are wrong. Birth control has never been a “divisive” issue in an election until recently, and if you had suggested that whether a politician believes a woman should have her access to contraception curtailed should be a debate question in 2008, the media and pundits all would have laughed.

Today, on the other hand, it may be one of the most important questions that could be asked. Let’s hope it is.

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