Four responses to how Martha Raddatz posed the abortion question

When Martha Raddatz asked the vice-presidential candidates an abortion question framed in terms of religion, I bolted forward. (See video, transcript.)

Many others have expressed frustration with Raddatz for framing the question this way. But she did, and others do too, so how should we respond? I see four options:

  1. Some people of faith are also pro-choice
  2. Separation of Church and State
  3. Women’s rights and identity politics
  4. A medical/economic framework

After thinking through these responses, I see the last option as the only one that will move us forward to reproductive justice and full access to safe, legal, and affordable abortion services.

Biden used the first three frameworks on Thursday night.

First, he said, “I refuse to impose [my religious beliefs] on equally devout Christians and Muslims and Jews,” accepting the premise that religious values are relevant to the policy discussion and that the government is beholden to religious institutions. Although he used their rhetoric of religious freedom, the anti-abortion stance most commonly taken by American politicians is founded specifically on the primacy of Catholic and Christian principles and is often actively anti-Semitic and racist. Something tells me calling for respect for Jews and Muslims won’t sway them.

Second, Biden said, “I refuse to impose [my religious beliefs] on others.” Now he’s saying that public policy is totally different from religious values, and many Catholics might agree, or at least now have a model for agreeing. But does it move us forward? Ryan stated the opposite position just as adamantly, “Our faith informs us in everything we do.” That’s a basic Republican premise—politicians should lead by their religions convictions. We quickly hit stalemate.

Biden echoed the third approach, identity politics, by saying, “I do not believe that we have a right to tell other people that — women they can’t control their body.” While I’m happy to hear Biden say that women are people who should control their own bodies, identity politics around “women’s” rights have marginalized women of color, economically struggling women, queer women, trans women, and people who aren’t women who still have uteruses and can and do get pregnant. As a feminist, I believe in breaking down the binary system of gender and recognizing intersecting systems of oppression. We need to critique the sexism of the anti-abortion movement while still working for reproductive justice for ALL, and we can’t do that with identity politics.

What’s left? Safe, affordable, and accessible abortion is a universal medical and economic need. Other approaches perpetuate an unacceptable erasure of people who do not fit the implicit paradigm of straight, white, Christian, middle class, and womanly. We need to move beyond that. And we need to talk about contraception and abortion together (Ryan did and we should, too).

Here’s a quick, limited outline of the medical and economic need for reproductive justice and the many issues included in this framework:

  • Med #1: Prohibiting legal abortion results in illegal abortions. Illegal abortions are unsafe. People will die.
  • Econ #1: Access to reproductive care enables people to pursue education and employment.
  • Med #2: When people do choose to carry a pregnancy, they need prenatal care!
  • Econ #2: When people—single or partnered, married or not—choose to have children, they need economically viable ways to care for self and family.
  • Med #3 & Econ #3: Children need health care, housing, food, and education in order to grow into happy, productive adults, which is a good thing for all of us.
  • Med #4: Contraception is safer and less expensive than pregnancy or abortion.
  • Econ #4: Contraception is highly effective in reducing unwanted pregnancies and abortions; therefore, providing free contraception is cost-effective for our health care system.

I want to keep going and connect this conversation to sex ed and defying heterosexism, but I’ll pause for now. What other medical and economic issues do you think are central to the fight for reproductive justice and abortion access? What strategies would you use to respond to Raddatz and reframe the conversation?

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  1. Posted October 15, 2012 at 11:39 am | Permalink

    I think you hit the high points in this issue. I personally was shocked when Martha Raddatz posed that question because I thought we separated Church and State in this country. How wrong I was … Ryan told me that. And isn’t it enough that back-door abortions kill people? Do you have to be “of a certain age” to know and fear that? I will never understand why the rights of the unborn have to be protected but not the rights and lives of women.

  2. Posted October 15, 2012 at 2:44 pm | Permalink

    Fantastic post. I was a fan of the way Biden called Ryan out for not following Catholic social teaching (I’m not Catholic, nor was I raised in that faith, but I think it was a good response to the assertion that being Catholic and pro-choice are mutually exclusive). But, I’m also of the mind that asking candidates to speak from a religious perspective, or *for* a religious perspective, is inappropriate at best. Option 4 bypasses the “final vocabulary” of religious responses by translating the issue into another language altogether: falsifiable data.

  3. Posted October 16, 2012 at 8:23 pm | Permalink

    I love seeing these comments here, but let’s bring further conversation back to where this post is up on the main site– comment at

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