Abortion in the Republican YouTube Debate

Amie Newman

The CNN/YouTube Republican debate last night covered everything from the national debt to criminal charges for women obtaining illegal abortions but the emptiness was evident anyway.

Does anyone else think that last night's CNN/YouTube Republican debate, while covering a range of important issues addressed in a (mostly) intelligent way by Americans around the country, ultimately felt deflating? There was discussion on everything from the Iraq war to the Holy Bible to gays and lesbians in the military. But none of the candidates' responses seemed to make the race any less, well, predictable. After the debate was over, a CNN anchor talked to a room filled with twenty-four "undecided" Republican Floridians who had viewed the debate to get their feedback. 12 men and 12 women and not one of them said the debate made the race any clearer for them. One woman actually said she thought maybe she'd vote for John Edwards because "these guys keep saying the same thing over and over again."

One thing the twenty-four did agree on? Those theoretically hot-button issues like abortion were not nearly as important in their decision to support a particular candidate as the media make them out to be.

It is seemingly inevitable, however, for the subject of abortion to make a showing at a presidential debate, isn't it? The geography of reproductive health is expansive – HIV/AIDS, sexuality education, maternal health, lack of access to basic reproductive heath services for millions of Americans – and yet it's abortion that gets the spotlight. It's a perfect match for the sensationalism and simplicity of a debate forum- controversial, and easily molded into a black and white issue. Despite the fact that presidential candidates – both Democrats and Republicans – have a hard time articulating exactly what they do and don't stand for in regards to abortion rights, candidates' have been traditionally pushed to take an "all or nothing" stance by the mainstream media.

But abortion is not a simple issue for many Americans. And among Republican presidential candidates' there is a more complex landscape this time around.

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Rudy Giuliani is a wild card. With a careful, pro-choice stand on abortion that also includes support for parental consent and for the Supreme Court decision banning a particular type of abortion procedure, Giuliani has changed the Republican campaign dialogue.

And there's Mitt Romney – a man who has made pendulum like swings between his pro-choice and anti-choice positions throughout his political career. To wit, Romney was just taken to task by the Republican Majority for Choice over what they call his "flip-flopping" on the abortion issue.

In preparation for last night's CNN/YouTube debate in St. Petersburg, FL, over 1,000 Floridians were surveyed on a range of election issues. According to the Baltimore Sun, "19% of the likely Republican voters surveyed said they believe that abortion should be legal under any circumstances and 61% said that it should be legal under certain circumstances. However, in the same survey, 38% of these likely Republican voters ‘voiced for a preference for Giuliani.'"

So I waited in anticipation for the old standard "are you for or against" abortion question to be raised, certain that CNN would pick a simple question from those submitted to YouTube to illicit those black and white answers.

Thank god I was disappointed.

Sure, I had to sit through the video question from the young man soldierly dressed, holding his huge firearm slung over one shoulder, demanding answers to whether or not the candidates' support the 2nd amendment. And, yes, it was painful to watch the eight white men on stage squirm when a young, Black man named Printess and his father asked what the candidates would do to remedy the "war at home" – black-on-black crime, particularly in the inner cities. More than one of the presidential candidates apparently thinks that African-Americans and Hispanics are one big "other" group with which to deal collectively.

But when Journey's video question was actually aired I admit I pumped my fist in the air. Or maybe I slammed my hand down on my table. I can't remember (even though it was like time stopped for a moment. Really.).

You may remember Journey from Rewire's eNews and her post last week where she shared why it has been so important to her to submit a range of video questions on reproductive health issues to the debate. Rewire contacted Journey before the debates precisely because we appreciated her nuanced and assertive questions about reproductive health issues. And it is true that any of Journey's questions that were submitted to YouTube would have been a worthy addition to the sequence of questions at the debate.

But the question she asked that was put to the Republican presidential candidates was the one I thought would never get asked (kudos to the CNN employees who chose it!):

In the event that abortion becomes illegal and a woman obtains an abortion anyway, what should she be charged with and what should her penalty be? What about the doctor who performs the abortion?

It's an important question and one that addresses an issue that has only recently gained traction in the reproductive rights discourse. If one supports the criminalization of abortion, how can one not support criminally punishing women who access abortion in that theoretical instance? The candidates' responses were unsatisfying and evasive across the board. Ron Paul stuck to his tried and true position on abortion telling viewers, and Journey, that the legality of abortion should not be a federal issue or as he put it "left up to the federal abortion police." Paul said that the determination of whether abortion is or isn't a crime should be left to the states. He didn't hesitate to add that, as an obstetrician, he "never saw a medically necessary abortion" and that "when talking about third and partial birth abortions there must be a criminal penalty."

Paul also said that it was the doctors who perform the abortions who should be punished and simply stated that women who obtain abortions illegally shouldn't face criminal charges.

Fred Thompson responded that if Roe v. Wade is overturned and abortion becomes illegal the issue should be "fashioned along the same lines as it is now" with abortion being prohibited after viability and doctors getting penalized criminally for breaking the law. But Thompson didn't address the part of Journey's question which asked whether women should face criminal charges for obtaining an illegal abortion.

I immediately contacted Journey after her question was aired, who was clearly not satisfied with the candidates' responses:

"In my opinion, neither of them answered the question and I think this just goes to prove that this means they'll have to put a face to abortion and that it…just points out the inconsistencies in such a pro-life stance."

Journey's video response to the candidates:

In reference to a question about a Congressional abortion ban, Giuliani made clear that he would not sign a federal abortion ban that came across his desk as president, preferring, once again to leave it up to the states to decide. Giuliani also clearly stated that abortion should not be criminalized but saddled with certain restrictions, like parental consent.

Mitt Romney weighed in saying that he would "welcome a circumstance where there was a consensus on not wanting abortion" across America but that the time for that is not yet here. Romney feels certain that Americans want to overturn Roe v. Wade and return the decision to the states despite the fact that consistently Americans polled say they do not want to see Roe v. Wade overturned.

Romney was, overall, excellent (if not a little defensive) at sticking to his script when confronted about his changing position on the abortion issue telling the audience, "I was wrong. Yes, I changed my mind. I am pro-life now. I am pro-life now." Romney is unwavering in this message but it may give some pause to wonder why his words are so, well, scripted on this issue.

The debate had its share of warm, unscripted and even funny moments: Thompson breathing a sigh of relief that the animated cartoon video image of Dick Cheney was not a portrayal of him or Mike Huckabee unequivocally stating that Jesus was too smart to run for public office.

But overall my evening shared with the Republican presidential candidates left me feeling fairly certain that, as one of the twenty-four interviewed viewers after the debate put it, "… it's going to take the undecided, independent and moderate Republicans and Democrats to decide this race. No one was swayed."

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