Why is Abortion a Sidenote in the Big Show?

Staunchly anti-choice Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan got off easy on reproductive health rights at last night's debate. Which makes sense, since the issue was cast as a personal matter.

By Akiba Solomon Oct 12, 2012

Like you, I’ve watched President Barack Obama debate lose to Republican challenger Mitt Romney and I’ve seen Vice President Joe Biden eviscerate, ether and embarrass swap policies with opponent Paul Ryan. 

I don’t expect any of the candidates or moderators to bring up urgent issues such as poverty and the stalled Farm Bill, police brutality and the prison industrial complex, racial and religious profiling, the easy availability of guns, or the impending death of affirmative action. Despite the ever-ballooning field of political punditry, the two major parties have been successful in narrowing their presidential talking points to address allegedly undecided "hardworking, middle class Americans" (translation: white folks in swing states).

Now, what I do expect is robust and repeated discussion of women’s reproductive health rights, a subject that radical anti-choice congressional Republicans, including VP nominee Paul Ryan, have made a core issue for at least two years. 

Toward the end of last night’s foreign policy-heavy vice presidential debate, moderator Martha Raddatz brought it up. Curiously, she framed her initial question in personal, religious terms:

RADDATZ: I want to move on, and I want to return home for these last few questions. This debate is indeed historic. We have two Catholic candidates, first time on a stage such as this, and I would like to ask you both to tell me what role your religion has played in your own personal views on abortion. Please talk about how you came to that decision. Talk about how your religion played a part in that. And please, this is such an emotional issue for so many —

RYAN: Sure.

RADDATZ: — people in this country. Please talk personally about this if you could. Congressman Ryan.

This allowed Ryan, who has a 100 precent anti-choice voting record according to National Right to Life, to frame his policy plans in vague terms. Here’s his answer in full:

RYAN: I don’t see how a person can separate their public life from their private life or from their faith. Our faith informs us in everything we do. My faith informs me about how to take care of the vulnerable, about how to make sure that people have a chance in life.

Now, you want to ask basically why I’m pro-life? It’s not simply because of my Catholic faith. That’s a factor, of course, but it’s also because of reason and science. You know, I think about 10 1/2 years ago, my wife Janna and I went to Mercy Hospital in Janesville where I was born for our seven-week ultrasound for our firstborn child, and we saw that heartbeat. Our little baby was in the shape of a bean, and to this day, we have nicknamed our firstborn child, Liza, "Bean." (Chuckles.)

Now, I believe that life begins at conception.

That’s why — those are the reasons why I’m pro-life.

Now, I understand this is a difficult issue. And I respect people who don’t agree with me on this. But the policy of a Romney administration will be to oppose abortion with the exceptions for rape, incest and life of the mother.

What troubles me more is how this administration has handled all of these issues. Look at what they’re doing through "Obamacare" with respect to assaulting the religious liberties of this country. They’re infringing upon our first freedom, the freedom of religion, by infringing on Catholic charities, Catholic churches, Catholic hospitals. Our church should not have to sue our federal government to maintain their religious — religious liberties.

And with respect to abortion, the Democratic Party used to say they want it to be safe, legal and rare. Now they support it without restriction and with taxpayer funding, taxpayer funding in "Obamacare," taxpayer funding with foreign aid. The vice president himself went to China and said that he sympathized or wouldn’t second- guess their one-child policy of forced abortions and sterilizations. That, to me, is pretty extreme.

Biden, who pledged that he wouldn’t impose his personal adherence to Catholic doctrine on "equally devout Christians and Muslims and Jews" and declared abortion a decision between a woman and her doctor, "and the Supreme Court," pressed Ryan on his previous opposition to the procedure in the case of rape or incest:

BIDEN: Now, with regard to the way in which the — we differ, my friend says that he — well, I guess he accepts Governor Romney’s position now, because in the past he has argued that there was — there’s rape and forcible rape. He’s argued that, in the case of rape or incest, it was still — it would be a crime to engage in having an abortion. I just fundamentally disagree with my friend.

Policy-wise, Ryan demurred (a move he also pulled after Missouri Rep. Todd "Legitimate–Uh, I Meant Forcible–Rape" Akin brought his party’s extremity into focus.):

RYAN: All I’m saying is if you believe that life begins at conception, that therefore doesn’t change the definition of life. That’s a principle. The policy of a Romney administration is to oppose abortion with exceptions for rape, incest and life of the mother…

And when Raddatz very directly asked Ryan if "those who believe that abortion should remain legal be worried" about a Romney-Ryan win, the congressman implied that the Supreme Court would handle it, without mentioning how at least two justices will likely retire in the next four years:

RYAN: We don’t think that unelected judges should make this decision; that people, through their elected representatives and reaching a consensus in society through the democratic process, should make this determination.

Not to sound like a broken record here, but among other shenanigans, Ryan and his Republican Congressional peers have obstructed health reform and repeatedly introduced bills that would narrow the definition of rape, defund Planned Parenthood, eliminate Title X funding, grant constitutional rights to fertilized eggs and codify the Catholic doctrine that life begins at conception. They have been relentless. 

I know that it’s Politics 101 to soften extreme rhetoric and minimize potentially unpopular legislative plans less than a month before an election. But that doesn’t make Ryan’s or Romney’s recent tact any more excusable. Nor is it OK for debate moderators to frame questions about reproductive health policy in personal terms. If this were just a matter of  personal belief, it wouldn’t be a presidential election issue! 

Personally, I wish mostly male and white House Republicans hadn’t spent so much energy  on the goings-on, real or imagined, of vaginas, speculums, ultrasounds, IUDs, hormonal birth control pills, uterine walls, sperm, eggs, fallopian tubes and lube. But they’ve been playing amateur gynecologist for at least two years. In a debate Romney and Ryan should be forced to share their plans. 

More: Find out how extreme anti-abortion politics are already affecting reproductive health access for poor women of color in "Collateral Damage in the War on Women," and be sure to use our handy infographic!