Pence and Harris Both Dodge the Debate’s Substantive Abortion Question

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Debate moderator Susan Page of USA Today speaks during the 2020 vice presidential debate, Salt Lake City, Utah, October 7, 2020. (Justin Sullivan/Reuters Pool)

Yesterday evening’s vice-presidential featured a rather rare occurrence: The moderator asked a direct, useful, specific question about abortion policy.

To both Mike Pence and Kamala Harris, moderator Susan Page posed parallel questions, asking each candidate what they’d like their respective home states to do in the event that the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade. The question was helpful in two ways that most mainstream outlets’ occasional questions about abortion policy usually are not.

First, it implied, correctly, that in the event Roe is overturned, policy-making on abortion will return to each state government. Most often, media discussions of Roe insinuate or assert that if the ruling were overturned or revised, it would spell the total end of legal abortion.

Second, Page’s question pressed the candidates to articulate their stances on specific abortion restrictions. Typically, journalist questions that touch on abortion sound something more like, “Why do you think a woman’s right to choose is so important?” or “What will happen to reproductive rights if Roe v. Wade is overruled?”

To her credit, Page offered something more valuable. After pitching a hypothetical in which Roe is overturned, she asked Pence, “Would you want your home state to ban all abortions?” and Harris, “Would you want your home state to enact no restrictions on access to abortion?”

Unfortunately, neither candidate chose to respond directly to Page’s useful, entirely fair question. For Pence, it was something of a missed opportunity. Although he did reiterate his pro-life stance and managed to return to the issue later on to knock Harris for the Democratic Party’s unpopular embrace of taxpayer-funded abortion on demand, he didn’t address the specific point of what laws he’d like Indiana to enact in a post-Roe landscape.

His failure to do so was disappointing, not least because he passed up the chance to offer a powerful, simple case for why he defends the right to life of every unborn human being. His stance on abortion, the GOP’s stance, is not popular with most Americans — but neither is that of the Democrats. To admit that he’d back an abortion ban wouldn’t have been a costly error; it would’ve been to admit the obvious and to use that opening to articulate his belief in the dignity of every human life, in stark contrast to the Democrats. What’s more, Pence missed an opportunity to showcase what pro-lifers want the U.S. to look like after Roe: not a country where women are punished, and not simply a country where abortion is illegal, but a country where abortion is unthinkable, where the mothers and fathers of unborn children never feel as if killing their child is their best or only choice.

Meanwhile, Harris’s response to Page was a masterclass in deflection and deception. She focused primarily on the inane argument that, because “millions of people are already voting,” it’s corrupt for Trump and the GOP Senate to confirm a justice to the Court. Then she pivoted to stale, muddled talking points about the future of Obamacare.

Sandwiched in the middle was this euphemism-laden response to the actual question: “There’s the issue of choice, and I will always fight for a woman’s right to make a decision about her own body. It should be her decision and not that of Donald Trump and the vice president, Michael Pence.”

Harris’s reply rests on three tropes common to defenders of unlimited legal abortion. First, she eschews the word abortion entirely, switching to the code word “choice.” Next, she repositions an act that kills an unborn human being as a woman’s right to control “her own body,” an unscientific claim that dehumanizes the fetus. Third, having pretended that the only body involved in abortion is the woman’s, she reframes the question as a matter of who gets to decide, when in fact the real questions at the heart of the debate are, “What happens in an abortion, and should that act be permitted?”

Susan Page deserves credit for attempting to raise real questions about abortion. Pence and Harris both should’ve been more honest with the nation in their answers.

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