Democratic White House candidates face grilling on abortion

Democrats running for US president in next year’s election sat down with voters on Saturday to outline their stance on abortion, a long-simmering issue newly inflamed by attempts to curtail it nationwide.

With abortion now among the most-discussed topics in the presidential race, the candidates aimed to impress an audience cheering “Who decides? We decide!” at the conference put on by family planning organization Planned Parenthood.

“If you’re not pro-choice, you’re not getting my vote,” declared 34-year-old Jennifer Egor, who traveled to the forum held in the South Carolina state capital Columbia.

“Women’s healthcare is everything. It’s not just about abortion, it’s so much more than that,” she said.

Attended by 20 of the 23 candidates aiming to unseat Republican President Donald Trump in the 2020 vote, the conference was titled “We decide 2020,” a reference not just to what is promising to be a contentious election, but also to the debate over who can choose if and when an abortion is necessary.

– Flip-flop –

The summit was attended by some of the most prominent Democratic candidates, including female senators Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar and Kirsten Gillibrand, as well as small-city mayor Pete Buttigieg and left-wing senator Bernie Sanders.

The candidates listened to poignant testimonies from women in the audience and made their own promises to fight for reproductive rights.

“It’s not 1952. You’re not going to lock women in the kitchen, you’re not going to tell us what to do,” Warren declared to applause.

But perhaps the most-scrutinized attendee was former vice president Joe Biden, a frontrunner in the polls whose position on abortion has come under recent criticism.

Earlier this month, the 76-year-old reversed his position on the Hyde Amendment, a ban on spending federal tax dollars on abortions unless the life of the mother is endangered, or when a pregnancy results from rape or incest.

While he’d previously supported the amendment, Biden said he’d decided to oppose the measure after a number of southern and midwestern US states in recent months adopted laws drastically curtailing access to abortion.

Emphasizing his support for abortion rights during his time in the US Senate, Biden said if elected he would have the 1973 US Supreme Court decision outlining abortion rights, Roe v Wade, enshrined into law.

But his promises weren’t enough to sway 67-year-old Deborah Saye, who, together with some friends, had traveled two hours by bus to make up her mind about which candidate to support.

“We discussed it, and we don’t know whether to believe him or not,” said Saye. “We don’t really like that he’s flip-flopping.”

– A crucial divide –

The controversy over Biden’s abortion stance shows that “you have to be a strong supporter of abortion rights in order to be a Democratic presidential nominee these days,” said Kyle Kondick, a political scientist at the University of Virginia.

“Abortion has become one of the most important divides between the two parties, and I think it’s a motivating factor for a lot of voters,” he said.

Much of the change in attitude has to do with Trump, who has “made restricting abortion rights and reproductive health access a primary issue in his administration,” said Tresa Undem, a partner at PerryUndem, a research firm studying public opinion on abortion.

And the moves by a half-dozen state legislatures to tightly restrict access to the procedure “really shook the ground for Democratic and many independent voters” who are in favor of abortion rights, she said.

But the impact of these laws has thus far been more political than practical: none are being enforced because they conflict with standing Supreme Court precedent, though the high court could rule on the issue again in the future.

Nonetheless, the moves have put abortion “at the center of the campaign,” Undem said.

“Democratic candidates are talking about abortion, (and) are not shying from it,” she said.

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