It took Fox News to ask the Democratic candidates about abortion…and Bernie’s answer was better

Last night, Fox News held a town hall featuring the two Democratic candidates. The event was originally supposed to be a debate between Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, but Trump backed out (Sad!).

While one might think that Democratic candidates should avoid Fox News on general principle, there’s apparently something to be said for holding a partisan debate on the opposing party’s network: after seven debates featuring the two Democratic candidates, Bret Baier became the first moderator to ask either of them about their views on abortion access. Specifically, “Can you name a single circumstance at any point in a pregnancy in which you would be okay with abortion being illegal?”

Here’s Sanders’s answer:

Bernie Sanders, via AFGE / Flickr

Bernie Sanders, via AFGE / Flickr

It’s not a question of me being “okay”…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.

I’ll tell you something which I don’t like in this debate. 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 followed up, pointing out that some Democrats support banning abortion after five months with exceptions for the life or health of the mother. Sanders reiterated that when he says he’s pro-choice, he means exactly that: “That is a decision to be made by the woman, her physician and her family.” Full stop.

Here’s Clinton’s answer:

Well, again, let me put this in context, because it’s an important question. 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.

When Baier followed up, asking if he would be correct to assume from her answer that Clinton was opposed to all restrictions on abortions, Clinton backtracked:

No, 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.

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.

To be clear, both Sanders and Clinton offered very strong pro-choice answers. To be clearer, Sanders’s position is more pro-choice than Clinton’s. Clinton supports restrictions on abortion access in certain cases; Sanders does not. It’s a small difference — as Clinton correctly noted, late-term abortions are exceedingly rare — but it’s a significant difference nonetheless.

Throughout this campaign, it’s simply been assumed that Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders were more or less in line with each other when it came to reproductive rights and women’s health. This being the case, many people and organizations who cite these issues in articulating their support for Clinton — including Planned Parenthood and NARAL — have argued that she would be more likely to make them a priority and would be more likely to deliver relevant policy victories. Since both candidates were even on their primary concern — actual issue positions — they deferred to secondary concerns in order to make their decision.

As it happens, though, there is space between the candidates on this primary concern. Clinton supports restricting abortion rights at a certain point in pregnancy; Sanders does not. This places him demonstrably to her left on reproductive rights. If you are fully committed to supporting the candidate who is the staunchest defender of these rights, you now have a distinction that you can use to inform your vote choice.

This isn’t to say that Clinton supporters who care about abortion access are obliged to back Sanders now. This isn’t even to say that Planned Parenthood and NARAL will or even should switch their endorsements. This is to say that more goes into the calculus behind those preferences than face-value policy positions.

But we knew that already.

Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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