The word “abortion” was not mentioned once in the first seven Democratic debates.
It wasn’t until Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders were asked about the issue at a Fox News town hall in March that either of the candidates addressed the issue in prime time and, even then, only briefly.
Finally, in the eighth Democratic debate on Univision, after a full month of social media pressure to #AskAboutAbortion, The Washington Post’s Karen Tumulty mentioned that the Supreme Court is “considering the most significant abortion restrictions in a generation.” But the moderator quickly segued into a more general question about nominating new justices.
Clinton briefly responded that she “would look for people who believe that Roe v. Wade is settled law.” There wasn’t enough time for a full answer. Sanders didn’t get to weigh in, either.
“It’s time to go to commercial,” Tumulty announced after an early applause break. “We’re going to commercial.”
According to Univision’s own analysis of Facebook comments on the debate, abortion was the third-most-discussed topic among women that night. It was never brought up again.
Abortion restrictions are being passed at an unprecedented rate but they are barely registering as footnotes in the 2016 presidential election. According to the Guttmacher Institute, the last five years account for more than a quarter of all of the state-level abortion restrictions that have been enacted since Roe v. Wade was decided in 1973. These restrictions cover everything from banning abortion after 20 weeks to regulating the width of clinic hallways. Most importantly, they are closing clinics, cutting off access to abortion at a ground level.
This spike in anti-abortion legislation is a direct consequence of the 2010 midterm elections, during which the GOP gained more control over state legislatures and governorships. Since then, an average of 57 new restrictions have gone into effect each year.
In Texas, these restrictions have led directly to Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, the most significant Supreme Court case on abortion since 1992’s Planned Parenthood v. Casey. Now, the judicial body is set to decide whether or not a 2013 Texas law, HB 2, which requires abortion providers to have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital, places an “undue burden” on women seeking abortion.
Meanwhile, similar state restrictions show no signs of stopping. Just look at March.
Early in the month, Florida’s 24-hour waiting period went into effect, marking a milestone achievement for anti-abortion advocates: Now, three out of five women in the U.S. must receive state-mandated counseling at least 18 hours before an abortion procedure. Last week, Indiana passed a bill requiring abortion providers to bury or cremate fetuses and banning abortions from being performed based on a fetal diagnosis of Down Syndrome. The latter requirement is likely unenforceable, designed primarily to dissuade women from choosing abortion.
And last Friday, Florida Gov. Rick Scott signed a bill similar to Texas’s HB 2 that will likely result in clinic closures. The Florida law also cuts off funding for low-income women who receive health-care services at abortion providers, as Reuters reported. State funding for abortion itself was already banned.
Not only are Republican legislatures controlling access to reproductive health care, Republican politicians are dominating abortion discussions. According to a Vocativ analysis, they said the word “abortion” 32 times during the first several presidential debates. Their favorite punching bag, “Planned Parenthood,” clocked in at 50 mentions thanks largely to last year’s undercover video smear campaign.
With the exception of Donald Trump, who has no legislative track record on the issue, it’s not hard to discern what the Republican candidates would be willing to do to limit abortion. The businessman frontrunner is “pro-life” with the exceptions of rape, incest, and life endangerment but, when asked if abortion should be illegal outside of those categories, he said, “It depends when.”
But Trump aside, John Kasich has a long record of signing strict anti-abortion legislation and Ted Cruz has a 100 percent rating from the National Right to Life Committee (NRLC). Cruz, who is particularly bullish against abortion rights, has said that “any just society should protect that right [to life] at every stage, from conception to natural death.”
In the face of this vocal opposition, the relative silence from the other side of the aisle is telling. It’s hard to fight back against abortion restrictions when you barely say the word “abortion” out loud.
In fact, based solely on the Democratic debates, it might seem like abortion is no longer an important issue for voters. Polling data tells a different story—as long as you care about what women think.
According to Gallup, women in swing states ranked abortion as the most important 2012 election issue, above jobs, health care, and the economy. For men in swing states, on the other hand, the top issue was jobs. Two percent of men said that “honesty and integrity” was the most important issue. Abortion didn’t even make the list.
There’s also evidence to suggest women—and only women—care more abortion now than they did in the past. Gallup data shows that the percentage of women who identify as pro-choice has gone up since 2001 while the percentage of pro-choice men is the same. Since 2010 specifically, there has been a 12 percent increase in women self-labeling as pro-choice—from 42 percent to 54 percent—accompanied by a 1 percent decrease in pro-choice men—from 47 percent to 46 percent.
But while abortion still registers as a vitally important issue for women, the public at large seems largely unaware of the restrictions that have been placed on abortion since 2010. According to a Vox/PerryUndem poll, 83 percent of registered voters said they “don’t know or aren’t sure about which laws are in place around abortion.” But after these voters were given more information about abortion restrictions, two-thirds said that the states that pass them are headed in the “wrong direction.”
As long as most people have little to no knowledge of abortion restrictions, they will continue to pass. In this case, silence, ignorance, and apathy are one in the same. For people besides women to care about the whittling away of reproductive rights, the full details of the abortion debate will have to come front and center in 2016.
But so far, one party is still convinced despite all evidence to the contrary that Planned Parenthood illegally sold fetal tissue. And the other party is letting them run the conversation.