The interviews and town halls of a presidential campaign cycle can be mind-numbingly predictable. It’s usually easy enough for politicians and their teams to guess what issues will be on the table and prepare some responses in advance. At best, candidates will deliver cogent and/or inspiring arguments that will generate headlines and motivate voters. At worst, they’ll give boring, canned-sounding answers that won’t hurt them at the polls.
Bernie Sanders’ statement on abortion rights at a Fox News town hall on Monday night hit neither of those marks. Instead, he spewed forth a misinformed, ill-prepared sound bite that validated a dangerous set of lies about abortion care. Conservative news outlets are eating it up, using Sanders’ response to argue that left-wing politicians support a medical procedure that does not actually exist.
The question that tripped up Sanders came from Fox News host Martha MacCallum, who asked, “Do you believe that a woman should be able to terminate a pregnancy up until the moment of birth?”
Here’s what Sanders said:
Look, I think that that happens very, very rarely, and I think this is being made into a political issue, OK. So I think it’s rare, it’s being made into a political issue. But at the end of the day, I believe that the decision over abortion belongs to a woman and her physician. Not the federal government, not the state government, and not the local government.
Sanders is wrong. Doctors do not perform abortions “up until the moment of birth”—not “very, very rarely,” not ever. If a healthy woman is in labor or carrying a full-term, viable pregnancy, a doctor will deliver the infant, not perform an abortion. Any suggestion otherwise is unscientific propaganda.
The phrasing Fox’s MacCallum used doesn’t come from doctors. Rather, it originated in disinformation campaigns designed to gin up support for criminalizing women’s reproductive decisions. This was a perfect opportunity for Sanders to correct the record, dress down the right-wing activists painting women as capricious murderers, and present an affirmative case for abortion rights.
Instead, Sanders allowed Fox News viewers to absorb the falsehood that women request and receive abortions as they’re going into labor—and he’s not the first progressive politician to do so. In January, Virginia state legislator Kathy Tran, who’d introduced a bill that would make it easier for women to get medically necessary abortion care, stumbled when a Republican asked her if the bill would allow a woman to terminate a pregnancy while “she’s dilating.” “That would be a decision that the doctor—the physician and the woman would make at that point,” Tran said.
Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam fell into the same trap when a radio host asked him about Tran’s response. In a muddled answer that would inspire angry conservatives to unearth a blackface photo from his medical school yearbook, Northam made it sound like doctors who were asked to perform a third-trimester abortion would deliver a baby, then decide with its parents whether it should die. The confusion Northam created stemmed from the fact that the few abortions that occur late in pregnancy are typically performed due to severe fetal abnormalities, many of which consign an infant to death soon after birth. While trying to explain the terrible choices parents of such an infant must make regarding life support, resuscitation, and palliative care, Northam left room for abortion-rights opponents to suggest that he supports infanticide.
These highly visible Virginia screw-ups dominated the national news cycle for several days in January. Soon after, Donald Trump used his State of the Union address to register his disapproval of made-up laws that would “allow a baby to be ripped from the mother’s womb moments before birth.” And earlier this month, in the U.S. Senate, Sanders’ colleagues held a hearing titled “Abortion Until Birth,” a farcical vehicle for the right-wing myth that infants are regularly born alive and then allowed to expire after failed attempts at abortion.
This is all to say that Sanders knows, or should have known, that abortion during labor is one of the right wing’s favorite anti-choice talking points. Conservatives love pressing progressives on the particulars of their abortion views—whether abortion should be legal at this point in pregnancy or at that point in pregnancy, or under these or those circumstances—because if pro-choice politicians don’t have an answer prepared, they can easily come off as callous or defensive. Support for abortion rights drops when people are asked about second- and third-trimester procedures. As a consequence, it behooves right-wingers to focus on the 1.3 percent of all abortions that occur at or after 21 weeks’ gestation.
These abortion questions don’t have to be the impossible trap conservatives intend them to be. In the final debate of the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump used this tactic against Hillary Clinton, saying, “You can take the baby and rip the baby out of the womb of the mother just prior to the birth of the baby. … Hillary can say that that is OK, but it’s not OK with me.” Instead of equivocating or misinforming viewers, Clinton put forth an impassioned argument for reproductive rights. “That is not what happens in these cases,” she said. “I have met with women who have, toward the end of their pregnancy, [gotten the] worst news one can get—that their health is in jeopardy if they continue to carry to term. Or that something terrible has happened or just been discovered about the pregnancy. I do not think the United States government should be stepping in and making those most personal of decisions.”
This was one of the most impressive moments of Clinton’s candidacy. She had a response ready, spoke from experience, refocused the debate on the needs of women, and sounded appropriately outraged by Trump’s cruel demonization of those who’ve been forced to make difficult decisions for their own health and the good of their families.
Every Democrat, especially those running for president, should be prepared to do the same. Since so many pro-choice politicians seem to be having a rough time with the “Do you support abortion in the moments before birth?” question, I asked reproductive rights experts how they think progressive candidates should respond. I also asked physicians to help me with a medically accurate framing. So no more excuses, pro-choice politicians! The next time someone asks you this misleading question, here’s what you should say.
Debate moderator: Do you think abortion should be legal up until the moment of birth?
Politician: First of all, no one is performing abortions up until the moment of birth. There is no such medical procedure—it’s a fiction dreamed up by right-wing extremists who want to take control of women’s bodies.
If a healthy woman with a healthy, full-term pregnancy asks a doctor to terminate that pregnancy—which, by the way, there is no evidence to suggest any woman is doing—the doctor would simply refuse.
In reality, less than 1 percent of abortions take place in the third trimester. Opponents of legal abortion would have you believe that these patients are hopelessly fickle women who simply change their minds about giving birth after eight months of pregnancy. That’s not only untrue—it’s offensive. These are women who are forced to make unimaginably painful decisions. They are women with preeclampsia, who are risking severe injury or death if they continue with what is in many cases a deeply wanted pregnancy. They are parents who discover in the third trimester that their fetus has grown its organs on the outside of its body or failed to develop a brain. Usually, if the fetus can survive outside the womb but a pregnancy will put the woman’s health is at risk, doctors will strive for a safe delivery, not abortion. But the choices women must make for their bodies, their families, and their health are complicated enough, and hard enough, without the cruel judgment and interference of politicians—mostly men—who have no knowledge of the personal and medical concerns that govern these patients’ lives. There can be no one-size-fits-all answer when it comes to pregnancy and maternal health.
That’s why, as elected leaders, we should be fighting to increase access to quality health care, not trying to take it away—especially not by writing legislation based on imaginary scenarios that ignore the women’s lives that hang in the balance. Abortion care is essential health care, and the ability to choose whether and when to have children is an essential human right.
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