Four responses to how Martha Raddatz posed the abortion question

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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?

Mimi Arbeit is a PhD Candidate in Child Study and Human Development, with a focus on adolescent sexuality and sexual health (read more in her Academic Feminist interview). She is a freelance sexuality educator and also works locally to promote and strengthen sexuality education in public schools. She writes & curates The Debrief, a sex, dating, and relationships column published every Wednesday: She also posts personal writing and academic work at She tweets @mimiarbeit.

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