Clinton Interview Shows How Republicans Are Setting The Terms Of The Abortion Debate

So-called partial-birth abortions are a topic of conversation again.
An accusation by Marco Rubio put Hillary Clinton on the defensive about her position on late-term abortions.
An accusation by Marco Rubio put Hillary Clinton on the defensive about her position on late-term abortions.
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George Stephanopoulos asked Hillary Clinton to respond to Marco Rubio’s criticism of her record on "partial-birth abortions" on ABC’s “This Week,” reinserting reproductive rights into an election race dominated by other themes.

But Stephanopoulos’ exchange Sunday with the Democratic presidential hopeful about abortion was most notable for what it did not cover.

Stephanopoulos did not, for instance, ask about the fact that many women in Texas now must travel hundreds of miles to access an abortion -- a phenomenon that has driven up the rates of dangerous self-induced abortions.

He did not ask how Clinton would respond if the Supreme Court significantly weakens Roe v. Wade before she takes office -- something it may very well do by the end of June.

And he did not ask for Clinton’s opinion of the recent indictment of the Center for Medical Progress in a case that began as an investigation of Planned Parenthood prompted by the dubious anti-abortion group’s misleading video.

Nor did the ABC host ask Clinton to explain why she supports repealing the Hyde Amendment, a law prohibiting the use of federal funds for abortions that many advocates argue disproportionately harms low-income women.

Instead, Stephanopoulos asked Clinton whether, as Sen. Rubio (R-Fla.) alleged Saturday night, she supports a woman’s right to get what conservatives call “partial-birth abortions” -- abortions involving dilation and extraction. Congress passed a law prohibiting the method in 2003 and the Supreme Court subsequently upheld the ban.

Clinton, who as a senator voted against the 2003 law banning the procedures, initially did not answer the question, attacking Rubio instead for using the line of questioning to undermine reproductive rights more broadly.

“It's really quite sad to see what Sen. Rubio is becoming in this campaign,” Clinton said. “Everybody understands that he is diving as far right as he possibly can. You know, I've been on record for many years about where I stand on abortion, how it should be safe and legal and I have the same position that I've had for a very long time.”

Pressed again to clarify her position, Clinton appeared to confirm that she does not support restricting abortions of any kind. She cited her own experience meeting women who have undergone the procedures and the often difficult circumstances that led them to that decision.

“You know, when he raises the, you know, very, very difficult issue of late-term abortion, he conveniently overlooks the fact that there are medical reasons, there are health-related reasons,” she said. “I've met women who have had to face this excruciating choice. This is not something that anyone that I've ever met with enters into without the deepest thought, the most careful consideration.”

If Clinton’s answer was awkward, however, it may be because she was asked to discuss the Democratic priority of reproductive rights on distinctly Republican terms.

Given that most late-term abortions remain illegal under federal law -- and even when they were legal, they made up a tiny fraction of all abortions performed -- it is not normally a topic at the forefront of the public agenda. Republicans like Rubio enjoy bringing it up, because it is the most controversial part of Clinton's and many other Democrats’ abortion rights platforms.

There is nothing wrong with that. It is the nature of politics.

What is surprising is that Democrats may have themselves to thank for having to field abortion questions that play to their weaknesses rather than their strengths.

None of the Democratic candidates has brought up abortion or reproductive rights in any of the five presidential debates they have had so far.

That has given Republicans an opening to set the terms of the discussion, as Stephanopoulos’ interview with Clinton shows.

It is not as if Clinton is not speaking about reproductive rights in her stump speech. For example, she called for repealing the Hyde Amendment at a televised campaign rally in New Hampshire in January.

But that just makes it all the more glaring that she has not brought the issue up unprompted during one of the debates when she had a chance to do so before an even bigger audience.

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