It no longer comes as news that the Democratic Party has committed political malpractice by making the primary debates between its smart, strong candidates so few and so difficult to watch. But Sunday night’s debate was perhaps the most depressing of the bunch, obscured as it was in the midst of a three-day weekend, yet offering some of the most specific, robust exchanges between the party’s increasingly closely matched candidates, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. (Maryland’s Martin O’Malley was, once again, a participant and certainly has demonstrated to voters his commitment to voluntarily ruining all of his winter weekends, as opposed to the rest of us, who have been forced to do so by Debbie Wasserman-Schultz.)
On Sunday, after a week of inelegant griping in the press, Clinton and Sanders clashed forcefully (but with respect) in Charleston, South Carolina, blocks away from the church at which a young white shooter killed nine black worshipers last summer. There was some talk of that incident in the context of gun control and, at this debate, sponsored in part by the Congressional Black Caucus, of the epidemic of police brutality against African-Americans; Clinton argued that “there needs to be a concerted effort to address systemic racism in our criminal justice system,” in part by retraining police, ending racial profiling, and “finding more ways to bring the disparities that stalk our country into high relief.”
Sanders questioned Clinton hard on how she expected to be able to control Wall Street and big banks when she had taken so much money from them, and she went after him aggressively about his record on guns. Then they dug into a real, substantive conversation about their different approaches to health care, with Clinton settling into a far clearer explanation than she has so far of her reluctance to overhaul the health-care reforms that took generations of Democratic effort to put into place. Agree or disagree, it’s a meatier, more substantive critique of Sanders’s single-payer plan than one that rests on the gross threat of raising taxes or simply stripping people of their current ACA benefits, which had been the thrust of her campaign’s sloppy attacks over the past few days.
The quality of the exchanges between the candidates made it all the more regrettable that moderators asked no questions about drone strikes; the lead poisoning of the water in Flint, Michigan (though Clinton did raise the topic herself, righteously and forcefully hitting Governor Rick Snyder, in her final remarks; in his own remarks, Sanders followed by calling for Snyder's resignation); or the labor movement, despite an upcoming Supreme Court case that might significantly weaken unions.
There was a question, directed at Hillary, about the role her husband, former president Bill Clinton, would play in her administration, and one directed at Bernie about what he thought about Bill Clinton’s past sexual indiscretions. If you include the previous debate’s question about whether Hillary would have her husband do flower-arranging as First Gentleman, that makes three questions in four debates that somehow relate to the masculinity of a guy who wasn’t even on the stage, but not one about the millions of Americans who experience restricted access to legal abortion services, many of them Americans who also have limited access to sex-education programs and affordable contraception, not to mention the jobs, educations, state benefits, affordable child care, and early schooling options that would make decisions about if, how, and under what circumstances to start or grow a family more just.
The lack of interest in the topic of reproductive justice is particularly galling, since this primary season — which has included talk of political revolution coming mostly from Sanders — has lately also featured some revolutionary language coming from Clinton, not a candidate usually known for being on the radical edge of debate.
But as too few people seemed to have noticed, Hillary Clinton has spent the past ten days campaigning vocally and without apology against the Hyde Amendment. Hyde, a legislative rider first passed in 1976 and added to appropriations bills every year since, prohibits the use of federal funds to pay for abortion, which means that the low-income women, many of them women of color, who rely on Medicaid for health insurance cannot use their insurance to terminate their pregnancies except in cases of rape, incest, or their life being in danger.
It is a discriminatory law that perpetuates both economic and racial inequality. And the notion of repealing it has remained a third rail in American politics until about five minutes ago … or, more precisely, until this summer, when California representative Barbara Lee introduced the EACH Woman Act, which would effectively repeal Hyde. So far, the bill has 109 co-sponsors but a vanishingly small chance of going anywhere.
Which is what makes it so notable that Hillary Clinton — who, despite a strong record of supporting reproductive rights, has not always spoken about them with righteous vigor (her 2005 discussion of abortion as a “sad, tragic choice for many” enraged many activists) — has decided to publicly do battle against Hyde. Even more important, she is explaining her stance in terms that offer a crucial and long-awaited corrective to the course of the abortion debate in America.
In the days after being formally endorsed by both Planned Parenthood and NARAL last week, Clinton brought up Hyde at a rally, describing it as a law that “[makes] it harder for low-income women to exercise their full rights.” A few days later, when asked by Alicia Menendez at the Iowa Brown & Black Presidential Forum whether she would support a congressional effort to repeal Hyde, she answered “yes” unequivocally and described reproductive rights as “a fundamental human right.”
After that event, Clinton answered two further questions in an interview with Fusion’s Anna Holmes. Clinton told Holmes that she believes the Hyde Amendment “deprives low-income women from being able to access the full range of reproductive health services.” She acknowledged that repeal of the law could be difficult in a conservative-controlled Congress, but that as president she would work to “expand the services Planned Parenthood provides,” since she is “not only against defunding Planned Parenthood, but … would like to see Planned Parenthood get even more money because it is oftentimes both the first and last resort.” Need for the affordable reproductive services it provides, Clinton went on, “is only going to grow because of the pressure the courts are putting on [providers], so we will have to do what we can to provide access to quality affordable health care that includes the full range of reproductive health, including abortion.”
Remarkably, Clinton wasn’t done. She finished off by noting that in places where providers are being shut down, “the people who are going to suffer the most are low-income women of color,” and that she’s very worried about the upcoming Supreme Court decision in Whole Woman’s Health v. Cole, a Texas case that will determine states’ abilities to enact further debilitating restrictions on reproductive-health-care access. Clinton then proclaimed that she would treat Planned Parenthood as one of her “partners at the table, trying to figure this [crisis of access and inequality] out.” Later, for emphasis, she tweeted, “I would like to see Planned Parenthood even get more funding” and “A right without the opportunity to exercise it isn’t a right. Low-income women deserve health care. The Hyde Amendment should be overturned.”
If you care about abortion and women's equality, this was a bravura set of responses, breathtakingly comprehensive in its acknowledgement of the impact of the Hyde Amendment, the difficulties of congressional action to repeal it, the particular impact state restrictions have on certain already-disadvantaged populations, and the reference to the Supreme Court case and what it might mean in a new president’s term. It is also notable for its lusty embrace of Planned Parenthood, a group that in recent years has been attacked more obsessively by congressional Republicans than any entity save for perhaps Hillary Clinton herself.
If you’ve followed Democratic politics for the past couple of decades, Clinton’s full-throated expressions might well have left your jaw on the floor. For years, conventional wisdom has led mainstream Democrats, including Clinton herself, to tread around abortion on cat’s paws, often referring to the procedure euphemistically or as a kind of necessary evil. This distance and distaste, the unwillingness to defend abortion on moral grounds, has only reinforced the belief that an embrace of reproductive rights is a risky move and allowed uninterested pundits (many of them male) to calmly sideline the ever-more-restricted rights of women as a sideshow, as some subsidiary “single issue,” as a part of the “culture wars.”
Clinton, in her lengthy, thorough statements about the relationship between reproductive-health-care access and economic inequality, dropped a bomb on the political conversation about abortion. It would be difficult to overstate how radical it is to hear a mainstream politician address the inability of women to make reproductive choices about their bodies and lives as an economic issue, central to class and racial discrimination in America. Yet no one at any of the four official Democratic debates has asked Clinton about her remarkable amplification of feminist argument.
For that matter, no one has asked Sanders. Sanders, who has a pretty sterling record on reproductive rights, no doubt agrees with Clinton that Hyde should be overturned. He has voted against it, after all, many times. Which is great.
But it is also worth nothing that while he has led the way, and drawn his opponent left, by centering crucial minimum-wage fights and calls for Wall Street reform, free college, and single-payer health care at the center of his campaign, he has rarely included the inequalities of reproductive access at the core of his fight for economic equality.
Sanders released his health-care plan hours before Sunday's debate, and it is worth noting that it made no mention of abortion, even though it is the particular aspect of health care that many states are actively trying to make illegal and inaccessible. It’s also worth asking about how his plan, which would theoretically lead to the government providing health insurance for all, would address the obstacle of Hyde. Perhaps any single-payer plan would find a way to work around the appropriations bill to which Hyde has been attached, but it's not hard to imagine that congressional Republicans would balk — loudly and probably effectively — at any single-payer plan that provided for abortion services. This is not an argument against single-payer health care, just one for direct acknowledgment of the fact that providing reproductive services would likely be a central and challenging part of the fight to provide more Americans with more affordable quality health care. On Monday, Sanders campaign manager Jeff Weaver told Huffington Post reporter Samantha Lachman that the plan would include abortion coverage.
Not that we heard anything about any of this, from Clinton, Sanders, the other guy, or any of the network debate moderators on Sunday night. Which in turn I suppose doesn’t matter since no one is watching any of these well-argued and masterfully hidden debates anyway. Thanks, DNC, it’s been real. To Iowa!