After seven Democratic debates and more town halls than can be enumerated without scientific notation, you’d think voters would have a pretty comprehensive sense of where the candidates stand on the issues. How many more times do we need to hear about Bernie Sanders’s feelings regarding millionaires and billionaires? Or Hillary Clinton’s uncompromising stance on gun control? But if these discussions have grown redundant, the moderators are at least as responsible as the schedule-makers: Through seven Democratic debates, the candidates weren’t asked a single question about reproductive rights.
The significance of that omission became apparent Monday night, when, nearly a full year into the campaign, a Fox News town hall prompted an apparent disagreement between Sanders and Clinton on late-term abortions. Asked to name “a single circumstance at any point in a pregnancy in which you would be okay with abortion being illegal,” the democratic socialist refused.
“It’s not a question of me being okay,” Sanders said. “I happen to believe that it is wrong for the government to be telling a woman what to do with her own body.”
When Fox News’ Bret Baier pressed Sanders on whether he agreed with other Democrats that access to abortion could be limited after five months, the Vermont senator reiterated his absolutist stance on choice.
By contrast, Clinton said she is “on record in favor of a late pregnancy regulation that would have exceptions for the life and health of the mother.” That stance appears to contradict the position of the Planned Parenthood Action Fund*, which has nonetheless thrown its support behind the Democratic front-runner.
Nearly 99 percent of abortions are performed before the 21st week of a pregnancy. At a moment when several red states have made abortions impossible to access for millions of women, the stakes of a disagreement on late-term bans might seem low. In calling for the repeal of the Hyde Amendment — legislation that bars federal funding for abortive services — Clinton has already placed herself in the left wing of her party on matters of choice.
Still, highlighting this policy difference would certainly have been a better use of debate moderators’ energies than, say, asking Bernie Sanders how he feels about God for the 11th time.
*Planned Parenthood sent a statement, which did not indicate an official stance on third-trimester abortion bans, but insisted that there is no daylight between the organization’s position and the one that Clinton expressed: "Planned Parenthood assesses pieces of legislation based on whether it upholds/complies with Roe vs. Wade - which is what Hillary Clinton was articulating."
At Salon, Amanda Marcotte notes that Clinton officially opposes 20-week abortion bans and was only expressing openness to restrictions after the point of fetal viability, which is generally set at 24 weeks. Planned Parenthood’s position page on 20-week bans does not stipulate a similar openness. And many of the arguments it lists in opposition to such bans, including the risk of criminalizing doctors, seem like they would still be relevant at 24 weeks. What’s more, as medical technology advances, the point of viability could creep earlier. Still, third trimester abortions are exceedingly rare and prohibited (usually with some exemptions) in 43 states.
An earlier version of this piece misrepresented Clinton’s position on limited 20-week bans. Whether or not Clinton disagrees with Sanders on late-term abortion restrictions still isn’t clear. Sanders told Fox News that he was against making abortion “illegal” at any point in a pregnancy. But it’s possible that he intended illegal to mean “a ban without exceptions,” in which case his position would be identical to Clinton’s. With any luck, some future debate moderator will clarify this ambiguity.