No questions about reproductive rights at Democratic debate

Health
Kamala Harris

Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., responds to a question Thursday, Sept. 12, 2019, during a Democratic presidential primary debate hosted by ABC at Texas Southern University in Houston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

WASHINGTON (AP) — The absence of issues such as women’s reproductive rights and the gender pay gap from the Democratic presidential debate is prompting criticism Friday from several candidates and other Democrats who argue the focus of the evening was misplaced.

California Sen. Kamala Harris, one of three women on the debate stage, said Friday that, “yet again, women’s access to reproductive health care is under full attack,” and that the issue “should have been brought up last night — it wasn’t.”

Harris was not the only candidate to note the absence in the Thursday night debate. Former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke also did so in a tweet, as did South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who said that “when women’s reproductive freedom is under attack … it’s important we all keep talking about it.”

The issue of abortion has emerged as a central topic in the 2020 presidential race. Earlier this year, some Republican-controlled states passed so-called fetal heartbeat bills, which outlaw abortion as early as six weeks into a pregnancy. The new restrictions, passed as anti-abortion activists and lawmakers are emboldened by the new conservative majority on the Supreme Court, have made support for abortion a key stance for Democratic candidates.

While all of the Democrats seeking the presidency support abortion rights, there is debate over how far Democrats should go to combat those new laws and over what they would do if the Supreme Court did overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court ruling that legalized abortion nationwide.

“We have moved beyond the point when it’s enough for a candidate to say they are pro-choice,” said Christina Reynolds of EMILY’s List, an organization dedicated to electing women at all levels of government who support abortion rights. “Women deserve to hear from presidential candidates the specific ways in which they will protect Roe v. Wade and our rights. There are real differences in both the records and plans for these candidates and it’s time we discuss it more directly.”

A majority of Americans, 57%, say abortion should be legal in at least most cases, while 42% think it should be illegal in all or most cases, according to an AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll in May. Among Democrats, roughly three-quarters think abortion should be legal in all or most cases. That compares with 3 in 10 Republicans.

New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, who abandoned her presidential bid last month, ran as a champion of women and families with a strong emphasis on abortion rights. And the majority of Democratic candidates participated in a health forum hosted by Planned Parenthood in Columbia, South Carolina, in June.

Strategists like Amanda Litman, the co-founder of Run for Something and a Hillary Clinton campaign alum, said that the issue is not “siloed” and that abortion will be a “sticking point against Republicans in every single fight.”

It was not just questions about reproductive rights that Democratic women noted were missing from the discussion. Valerie Jarrett, who was a senior adviser to President Barack Obama through the course of his presidency, said she was disappointed there was no focus on “working family issues,” like paid leave, equal pay and affordable child care, among others.

Near the end of the debate, Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota discussed how she was forced to leave a hospital as a new mother, 24 hours after giving birth, while her daughter remained in intensive care. She said the experience led her to fight for a law to make sure new mothers could have longer stays.

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