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Clinton, Sanders asked about abortion at Fox News town hall — some say too late

Fox News hosted a town hall with Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) (Video: Victoria Walker/The Washington Post)
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For more than a generation, the Democratic Party has been the party of choice. With the Republican field tripping over itself to prove its anti-abortion bona fides, there seems no need to ask Hillary Clinton and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders what they think about the procedure, or what limits, if any, should be imposed on the women who seek abortions and the doctors who provide them. This is something everyone on the left agrees on. Right?

Not in the minds of some. For months now, as seven Democratic debates have passed without a question about abortion, those who want Sanders and Clinton to clarify their positions on Roe v. Wade, Planned Parenthood and the right to choose have been complaining about unasked questions. Hashtag: #AskAboutAbortion.

“Granted, abortion hadn’t been in the national news much before that debate,” Emily Crockett of Vox wrote after the last Democratic debate. “But there were also no questions about abortion at the debate following a shooting spree that killed three people at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs. And there were no questions about abortion at this debate, days after the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the biggest abortion case in decades.”

So Monday night, at a town hall on Fox News, moderator Bret Baier asked both candidates about abortion.

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“Can you name a single circumstance at any point in a pregnancy in which you would be okay with abortion being illegal?” Baier asked Sanders.

“It’s not a question of me being okay,” Sanders said, thanking Baier for the question. “… Let me be very clear about it. I know not everybody here will agree with me. I happen to believe that it is wrong for the government to be telling a woman what to do with her own body. I think, I believe, and I understand there are honest people. I mean, I have a lot of friends, some supporters, some disagree. They hold a different point of view, and I respect that. But that is my view.”

Sanders was just getting started.

“I’ll tell you something which I don’t like in this debate,” he added. “There are a whole lot of people out there who tell me the government is terrible, government is awful, get government off our backs. My Republican friends want to cut Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare — Medicaid, education. But somehow on this issue, they want to tell every woman in America what she should do with her body.”

Baier: “I guess the genesis of the question is that there are some Democrats who say after five months, with the exception of the life of the mother or the health of the baby, that perhaps that’s something to look at. You’re saying no.”

Sanders: “I am very strongly pro-choice. That is a decision to be made by the woman, her physician and her family. That’s my view.”

Clinton got the same question.

“Do you think a child should have any legal rights or protections before it’s born?” Baier said. “Or do you think there should not be any restrictions on any abortions at any stage in a pregnancy?”

“Well, again, let me put this in context, because it’s an important question,” Clinton said. “Right now the Supreme Court is considering a decision that would shut down a lot of the options for women in Texas, and there have been other legislatures that have taken similar steps to try to restrict a woman’s right to obtain an abortion. Under Roe v. Wade, which is rooted in the Constitution, women have this right to make this highly personal decision with their family in accordance with their faith, with their doctor. It’s not much of a right if it is totally limited and constrained. So I think we have to continue to stand up for a woman’s right to make these decisions, and to defend Planned Parenthood, which does an enormous amount of good work across our country.”

Baier seemed to want a more definitive statement. “Just to be clear, there’s no — without any exceptions?” he said.

“No,” Clinton said. “I have been on record in favor of a late pregnancy regulation that would have exceptions for the life and health of the mother. I object to the recent effort in Congress to pass a law saying after 20 weeks, you know, no such exceptions, because although these are rare, Bret, they sometimes arise in the most complex, difficult medical situation.”

Baier:  “Fetal malformities and … ”

Clinton:  “And threats to the woman’s health.”

Baier:  “Sure.”

Clinton: “And so I think it is — under Roe v. Wade, it is appropriate to say, in these circumstances, so long as there’s an exception for the life and health of the mother.”

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So: The question had been asked, and the candidates had pretty definitively answered. Now it was time for more criticism. One critic: “So we have to go to a FOX News #DemTownHall in order to get them to #AskAboutAbortion?!”

Sanders appeared to share the frustration of some pro-choice advocates. “It took @FoxNews to ask the first question about abortion at a Democratic town hall or debate,” he noted in a tweet.

Nor was Clinton shy about advertising her position.

In a statement, Ilyse Hogue, the president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, praised both candidates — but mostly Clinton.

“Both candidates unequivocally stated that they support a woman’s right to make her own decisions, and that’s a good thing,” Hogue wrote. “And we are so grateful to Hillary Clinton tonight for, once again, focusing the nation’s attention on the current crisis in abortion access facing this country, even when asked a question that is not relevant to the experience of the vast majority of the one in three women in this country who have had an abortion. Just last week we were on the steps of the Supreme Court rallying in support of women whose constitutional right to an abortion has been undermined thanks to dangerous, unnecessary restrictions on abortion. This is a crisis that cannot go overlooked and, once again, Hillary shines a light on it in ways no other candidate does.”

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In a tweet, Hogue also said that the question hadn’t been broad enough.

For the record, both candidates do have pro-choice statements posted on the campaign websites. Sanders: “We are not going back to the days when women had to risk their lives to end an unwanted pregnancy. The decision about abortion must remain a decision for the woman and her doctor to make, not the government.” Clinton: “Hillary will stand up to Republican attempts to defund Planned Parenthood, which would restrict access to critical health care services, like cancer screenings, contraception, and safe, legal abortion.”

But the question remains: Will the candidates be asked about abortion at Wednesday’s upcoming debate in Miami?

“It’s remarkable how many pro-choice progressives believe we don’t need to ask about abortion at these debates, either because abortion is already ‘the law of the land’ or because there are no differences among the candidates,” Jesse Berney wrote at Rolling Stone in January. Berney added: “Americans deserve to hear at the debates what proactive steps the candidates will take not just to protect the right to abortion, but how they will expand access. How will they restore government funds to pay for the procedure? How will they stop the states from closing down clinics? How will they lead a national conversation that questions the assumptions that abortion is somehow always a difficult decision, or even a moral failure?”

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