Abortion access is being decimated nationwide, and still not all of the Democratic presidential candidates have a plan to fix it. As someone who’s had an abortion, I find that unacceptable. During the 2016 presidential debates, I started the #AskAboutAbortion campaign for this reason—to have a conversation about the different plans candidates proposed to protect and expand the legal right to an abortion. Between then and now, we’ve been met with a landmark case at the Supreme Court, extreme bills intended to curtail or even eliminate access, worrisome moves from lower circuits, and another near-identical case now with the court that could reverse the 2016 decision and further hollow out access. In that environment, one would think that the candidates would be clamoring to spell out their plans to secure essential, basic health care for 51% of the population. But even as All* Above All Action Fund revitalized the campaign I started, I am still left wondering how most of the candidates would answer if the moderators ask about abortion tonight or in future debates.
Tonight’s MSNBC–Washington Post debate, hosted by all women moderators, will take place at Tyler Perry’s brand-new state-of-the-art film complex in Atlanta. The state is, at present, hell-bent on passing an abortion law so outrageous it’s been blocked in other states. It aims to ban abortion as early as the six-week mark, before many women know they are pregnant (as was the case with me). A judge temporarily blocked the law last month, but its fate remains an open question. Once again, debate moderators have an opportunity to ask all of the candidates how they would contend with anti-abortion state legislatures that will continue to pass these restrictions, whether it’s a Democrat or a Republican in the White House. Would these candidates wait for Congress to act? What kinds of executive actions could they take? Do they believe minors should be able to access abortion care without the consent of a parent or guardian? The conversation is much deeper than whether or not presidential hopefuls believe abortion should be legal—it’s what steps they would be willing to take to ensure its accessible.
In the last debate, CNN and New York Times moderators asked several of the candidates (not all) what they would do to end six-week bans. While I was pleasantly surprised to hear their answers, I was deeply disappointed that Representative Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) chose to revitalize the stigmatizing “safe, legal, and rare” mantra popularized in the 1990s to advocate for a ban on later abortion.
Afterward, recently fired Planned Parenthood CEO Leana Wen, M.D., tweeted that she appreciated that Gabbard “brought up the third rail for Democrats” and that it was “courageous” for her to highlight the “nuances” in opinions on abortion. I was quite surprised that the former president of Planned Parenthood would support outdated rhetoric riddled with stigma and call it nuance.
Since then, people have abortionsplained me, insisting that “safe, legal, and rare” is still a good, solid stance. Making abortion rare should be the end goal, right? But it’s not that simple.
Rare is not a number. The reality is abortion is on a steady decline, but nonetheless, we should aim higher. We don’t need to stigmatize the very people we want to support. And it does impact us; internalized stigma causes people who have abortions to second-guess their decision, feel guilty for not feeling guilty, or feel like they cannot tell a loved one about their experience. As Democrats, can we build a world in which those who can get pregnant are in a position to choose whether or not to do so, no matter their circumstances, wealth, class, race, or life choices? Demanding that abortion be rare places stigma on the person who needs an abortion, chastises them for seeking care, assumes the abortion could and should have been prevented, and underscores a pervasive myth that it’s somehow illegitimate to not want a(nother) child.
One of the people who seemed to understand this best won’t be on the debate stage tonight. Former housing and urban development secretary Julián Castro, who spoke up at the June debate not only about protecting abortion access but also about using a reproductive justice framework that centers people of color and ensures that everyone has the rights and resources to determine if, when, and how to grow their families. Hopefully, another presidential candidate will pick up the mantle and model compassion and support for people who have abortions, and push for a more visionary stance around our reproductive freedom.
It is not “extreme” to want to make sure everyone has access to the care they need, when they need it, particularly as lawmakers are creating a never-ending obstacle course on the way to the clinic. A true champion of reproductive rights will encourage voters to learn more about why people need access to abortions and have empathy for their experiences, not sit in judgment. The only way we’ll know is when moderators continue to ask about it. If they do, candidates will have a chance to model true leadership in support of us and illustrate a necessary vision: Abortion is health care, and it should be fully funded and accessible in the United States.
Renee Bracey Sherman is a reproductive justice activist and writer focused on the liberation of people who want and have abortions. She is an advisory board member of All* Above All Action Fund.