Precious little time during last night’s vice-presidential debate was devoted to an issue the Republicans have been hellbent on politicizing since they took control of the House in 2010. That, of course, was the niggling question of whether Romney and Ryan would work to further restrict access to abortion and contraception—or outlaw it altogether—if they win on November 6. Romney’s long career of flip-flopping on this issue has hit some kind of time-lapse photography in recent weeks, with his flips and flops coming fast and furiously: in Des Moines on Tuesday, he told an audience “There’s no legislation with regards to abortion that I’m familiar with that would become part of my agenda.” Perhaps he should alert his running mate, who’s a co-sponsor of no less than thirty-eight abortion-restriction bills. (Romney’s staff walked back his statement the next morning.)
Debate #2 was a good time to clear this up, since Jim Lehrer failed to raise the issue in last week’s Obama/Romney match-up. And, with about ten minutes left in the debate, moderator Martha Raddatz finally did. But many of us watching at home, the question she asked left a lot to be desired:
RADDATZ: I want to move on, and I want to return home for these last few questions. This debate is, indeed, historic. We have two Catholic candidates, first time, on a stage such as this. And I would like to ask you both to tell me what role your religion has played in your own personal views on abortion. Please talk about how you came to that decision. Talk about how your religion played a part in that. And, please, this is such an emotional issue for so many people in this country…
RADDATZ: …please talk personally about this, if you could.
There is a good argument against this way of framing the question. Joe Biden and Paul Ryan’s personal and religious beliefs aren’t really the most salient issue here: their policy positions are, and the way those positions impact 52 percent of the population of this country. Raddatz’s question took the focus off how restrictions on abortion rights impact actual women (plus, as Katha Pollitt put it last night, her voice “got all mourny and tragic”).
For many Democrats and pro-choicers, talking about religion and abortion in the same breath has long felt like playing on right-wing turf. As Irin Carmon wrote, “[S]he chose to frame the late-breaking, much-yearned for question about “social issues” in just the way Republicans prefer: in terms of religion.” But does it have to be that way? Joe Biden offered voters who struggle with the morality of abortion a way to separate their personal, religious beliefs and their public, political orientation toward the issue. He didn’t quite make the case that his religion leads him to support abortion rights, but he drew a clear distinction between his religious beliefs and his political position. And he acknowledged that equally devout people can and do come to different moral determinations about abortion than he does.
BIDEN: My religion defines who I am, and I’ve been a practicing Catholic my whole life. And has particularly informed my social doctrine. The Catholic social doctrine talks about taking care of those who—who can’t take care of themselves, people who need help.
With regard to—with regard to abortion, I accept my church’s position on abortion as a—what we call a [inaudible] doctrine. Life begins at conception in the church’s judgment. I accept it in my personal life.
But I refuse to impose it on equally devout Christians and Muslims and Jews, and I just refuse to impose that on others, unlike my friend here, the—the congressman. I—I do not believe that we have a right to tell other people that—women they can’t control their body. It’s a decision between them and their doctor.
It’s not intrinsically anti-woman to grapple with abortion through the lens of religion or morality. It’s just that religion has so often and so effectively been used as a weapon against women, demeaned them, made them incapable of being moral actors and dismissed the complexities of their lives. And while “personal views” aren’t necessarily best placed at a vice-presidential debate, I’m glad we have a prominent Catholic politician on record that faith and respect for women’s own decision-making don’t have to be opposed.
I wasn’t thrilled that Sister Simone Campbell, one of the Nuns on the Bus traveling the country to oppose Ryan’s budget, identified as pro-life in her DNC speech, either—but if she was going to go there, I loved that she did it by describing support for the Affordable Care Act as “part of my pro-life stance.” Both she and Joe Biden have offered pro-choice, anti-choice and confused Catholics a way to vote for the Democratic ticket with a clear conscience. And for that I’m grateful—to Raddatz, too. Besides, as Amy Davidson notes, Raddatz made use of one of her many strong follow-ups in a way that put the attention right back on women: “I want to go back to the abortion question here. If the Romney-Ryan ticket is elected, should those who believe that abortion should remain legal be worried?” For anyone who still hadn’t figured it out, by the end of the night, the answer was clear.
For more reproductive rights coverage, check out the Nation editors on the "Year of the Woman." And be sure to sign up for Feminist Roundup, The Nation's weekly newsletter featuring feminist content, here.