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 currently a doctoral student in child development, with a focus on adolescent sexuality and sexual health (read more in her Academic Feminist interview). In her research, she asks questions such as, “what are the features of positive, healthy sexuality for teens?” and “how do college students understand consent?” She is also involved in community-based projects in Boston and throughout Massachusetts to promote and strengthen sexuality education in public schools. She has over a decade of experience in teaching sex ed with young people aged 10 to 40 years old and designing and implementing queer feminist sex ed curricula and programming. She started her own blog four years ago at, which includes a series on wedding planning while queer and feminist, in addition to many other personal and professional explorations of feminism. She tweets @mimiarbeit.

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Join the Conversation

  • Sam Lindsay-Levine

    I think your medical and economic arguments are carefully thought out, data-based, and accurate, and are certain to be very persuasive to anyone who reached an anti-choice position through a logical, secular, rational, dispassionate analysis; i.e., nobody in the entire country ever.

  • susan

    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.

  • Robert

    Nice analysis — and particularly on target since the exchange so often starts with religious beliefs /”values” but really needs to be considered in the context of the values we want for our society.

    Sam L-L: a belief that change is possible is pre-requisite to achieving change. How others got to the opinion they hold does not relieve us of the need to raise both consciousness and the level of discourse.

    • Sam Lindsay-Levine

      My personal life experience leads me to believe that it is not generally possible to talk people out of their closely-held religious beliefs through careful logical reasoning. Change is possible, and indeed inevitable, but that doesn’t mean that every possible approach to that change is likely to be fruitful.

      If these sorts of arguments carried any weight with anti-choice believers, you would already see them working hard to make contraception widely and freely available, in order to minimize the number of abortions. In fact, however, anti-choice believers usually work hard against contraception and sex education, indicating that they are not swayed by the factual outcomes of their actions.

      I would be more than happy to be proved wrong.

      • Samantha

        I think part of framing the argument in terms of economics and medicine is to illustrate that religious beliefs are personal and not political. This should be the rhetoric – it is essentially reiterating the “separation of church and state”. Unfortunately, this is not “proving you wrong”. It seems that the issues arise not in individuals holding close their religious beliefs (of which they have every right) but in assuming that what you believe can be foisted upon everyone else regardless of their beliefs. This is why the framing of the question bothers me. It creates an environment where a person in power is able to dictate that “my” religious beliefs should be the absolute for everyone in this country.

        There was a meme that was circulating recently that resonated with me in regards to this issue. It’s a photo of a very stereotypically ultra-orthodox, very observant Jewish man: black hat, side-curls, long beard, etc. The caption above was “Can’t eat pork.” Below, it said “Isn’t trying to make illegal for everyone else”. This resonated with me because it served as a visual hyperbole: we should take something that so many people adore and are not religiously forbidden to have and outlaw it because this person’s religion forbids it. This argument is rife with fallacy – as is the anti-choice argument.

        • Sam Lindsay-Levine

          Maybe I’m completely off-track. Are we trying to convince anti-choice people to not be anti-choice? Because I don’t think most of them are that into separation of church and state.

          Even among the subset who are, they have a religious belief that God imbues each human egg with a soul at fertilization, and that therefore abortion is directly morally equivalent to murder; they will say that the state should be preventing murder above all other concerns.

          Like, I’ve tried arguments like this on anti-choice friends and acquaintances, and they get approximately 0 traction.

          Am I mistaken at who these arguments are supposed to be targeting? Has anyone else actually gotten them to work on anti-choice people? Help me out here.

          • Samantha

            I don’t think we CAN convince them. But – and I think what Mimi is trying to portray – from a political point of view, is it appropriate to place the issue in a religious voice as Raddatz did in her question? It’s not. A religious basis is not a political one but an economic and medical argument DOES belong in politics. People have a right to their beliefs – unfortunately there are many people out there who believe that everyone must abide by their religious guidelines and that these are akin to secular laws.

            Sam L-L: You are 100% right. But I don’t think that trying to change anyone’s mind is possible. What IS possible is to argue that you and I and each person has the right to make these types of medical decisions on his or her own. That in a public setting – such as a debate – the appropriate thing to to decouple religion and politics. That in a country devoted to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, an argument to make abortions illegal cannot be based on the religious beliefs of an individual but rather on the medical and economic need for and benefit of reproductive justice and freedom. Even if she didn’t “mean” to, I think the take-home is that Raddatz became part of the problem by posing the question in this way.

          • Sam Lindsay-Levine

            Samantha, I think your post, also, is 100% right and well-said, and I too viscerally disliked Raddatz’s framing of the issue at the time. My apologies if I was off-target from the main stream of the discussion; I’ve been in a “how to persuade people” tactical mentality for the last couple months because I’ve been volunteering calling registered voters here in MN and trying to get them to vote against the anti-gay amendment on the upcoming ballot.

  • Janet Sand

    As a feminist who remembers the time before Roe v Wade, I appreciate your framing this as a medical rather than religious discussion .

  • Matthew

    Thanks so much for this post. I was pleased by how Biden handled the question, simply because he pushed back on the blatantly theocratic Ryan’s answer. But Raddatz framing of the question concerns and annoys me as a nonbeliever. The political discourse on values in this country consistently excludes atheists, as if values could only come from religion. How about asking “How do your values as a human being with thoughts, feelings, dignity, and empathy affect your position on abortion?” Putting it in the context of religion will always push out more important and relevant frames of reference– specifically, human dignity, economics, and medicine. Which of course should be central to this discussion.

  • Sarah

    Argument #4 has a lot of excellent points and I would love to see more of these arguments introduced into the discussions on a national level. That said, I also have numerous faith-based friends (I live in the South) and it is important to also continue to provide viable arguments that include issues and questions of faith so that more Christians can comfortably stand up for be pro-choice.

    • Anna

      Mimi, I love the framing you’ve laid out. It exactly describes the argument that makes the most sense to me and feels undeniable. In my eyes, as well, it also makes reproductive rights pertain to everyone and not just women. But Sarah has a good point that I hadn’t even considered–even though I (as someone living in a very liberal environment) and the people around me can discuss reproductive rights as economic rights, so many people disagree or don’t relate to that argument. So we can’t really discount the religious or faith-based discussion that I don’t identify (or agree) with at all. I wonder how we can target the economic/medical argument to people who see reproductive health as a question of religion?

  • Cara

    I was so perversely relieved to hear Ryan’s clear threat to all things reproductive freedom in a way that I thought would galvanize the Obama ticket, that I had not thought about the framing of the question, nor of where/how Biden fell short. I appreciate your insight and the push to think deeper.

  • Bret H

    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.

  • mtgoldma

    Thanks so much, Mimi, for spelling out the arguments logically in the kinds of terms that public policy debate ought to engage (multiply verifiably facts, consensus). It’s always useful to have these lines of reasoning clear and at our fingertips, and so difficult to formulate them on such an emotionally-charged topic (on all sides). I think these are particularly important for shifting the direction of intractable discussions.

    In reading these arguments, I’m gripped with fear that none of these will be meaningful to someone whose real motives are based on punishing women for their sexuality. You say that people will die. More specifically, women who get abortions will die. I’m not sure everybody sees that as a problem. I truly hope that I will not always feel this cynical! I’d love to hear people weigh in on how to argue effectively and constructively against that premise.

  • Suzanne

    I think there’s been some great comments here already; Samantha articulating the need for separation of church/state re:bacon, and others for pointing out important viewpoints to be included in the discussion. I’m going to add one more perspective. Like most, I want a country that is economically viable where everyone receives basic healthcare, and I also find data driven policies about contraception/abortion very convincing as a route for achieving these ends. But “rational” policies can only take us so far; a “one-child policy” is a rational policy for reducing economic burdens and ensuring there is adequate resources for all. But despite being rational, I don’t think it would be widely supported (nor did it achieve the intended results in China?)
    The whole discussion would be better if we could agree on the known facts, what type of policy research is needed to substantiate unknown facts, and how to fund that research…but even then, we’ll still be left with a debate about what is the right way to structure society – and that discussion will need to address the issues #1-3.

  • Bruce

    I think it is important to walk in Paul Ryan’s shoes while thinking about this issue. Suppose we lived in a society where, based upon a Supreme Court ruling, it was declared legal to kill infants up to age 1 month if the mother felt that was what she wanted to do. Prior to this ruling, such behavior had been illegal, although significant sub rosa killings took place. A certain number of mothers were harmed as they dealt with the illegal elements who performed these infanticides.

    I know the analogy is limited. But consider… what argument would change your mind about trying to overturn the Supreme Court ruling that legalized this activity? I don’t think any argument posted here would convince you or me that this infanticide is okay.

    So if someone is “pro-life” because they really believe that life/personhood begins at the instant of conception, I don’t believe you can ever convince them that abortion is acceptable, with the possible except of when the mother’s life is endangered (in which case the discussion becomes “who” decides which life to save).

    That being the case, the best argument for protecting a woman’s right to choose lies in the Constitution and the separation of church and state. It does nothing to change the minds of the committed but it does say that this particular religious belief is not universally held and thus cannot be imposed on the rest of the country. Thus, Biden’s first response, I think, is actually the best.

  • Emily

    Mimi, thank you for spelling out such a practical approach to this issue that focuses on the common good. I agree with what you wrote – that everyone deserves safe, affordable and accessible healthcare, abortions included. If only our neighbors could see that by removing religion and focusing on care for all citizens, only then can we move forward. The right to choose an abortion is so important, but that does not mean every person needs to teach their child to make this choice. I will vote in November for the safety and well being of our society. You make this extremely clear in your argument and I thank you for providing me with the tools to easily discuss these points with others.

  • Rachie L

    Great analysis Mimi! I think the point about including contraception in the conversation about abortion is crucial. doing so would complicate the one dimensional “when life begins” discussion, and that is certainly a discussion in need of complication.

    Politicians make decisions that have massive practical (medical and economic to be specific) implications, that is their job – and Raddatz’s question, along with the general public discussion of abortion, was a denial, or at least minimization, of those implications.

  • susan

    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.

  • Amy Schultz

    Great post, Mimi. We don’t talk about the medical and economic because it is too wrapped up in issues of morality. Teenage girls need to know a future lies ahead of them when they delay childbirth until a most appropriate time.

  • Mimi Arbeit

    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

  • Anonymous

    Thank you so much for this thoughtful post, and for creating a space for this very important discussion! I appreciate the way you highlight the medical and economic aspects of abortion and contraception, which are too often neglected in debates about these issues.

    I would like to suggest, however, that it’s really important that we do not allow the way that some religious people have used religion in the abortion debate to lead us to abandon the relevance of religious values altogether when it comes to policy discussions. The separation of church and state is sometimes used as an argument that religious beliefs are entirely personal and have no political relevance. It might be possible to reserve certain theological or doctrinal beliefs for the personal sphere, but when it comes to ethics, it makes sense that religious individuals working in the public sphere will be informed by their faith. That, in and of itself, does not infringe upon the separation of church and state–indeed, it’s the separation of church and state that allows religious and nonreligious individuals to come from their own values-based perspectives into the public sphere to be together in society. When we’re in the public sphere, we can’t cite scripture or our favorite philosopher as the reason for our belief in human dignity and expect others to accept the same authority. But whether or not we believe in human dignity, and what that means–that’s both political and something that’s inextricably tied to our religious or ethical beliefs.

    Is it problematic that the religion question only comes up in the context of debates like abortion and not, say, intervention in foreign conflicts? Definitely. If we’re going to talk about values, values–both religious and nonreligious–matter not just in reproductive health issues, but across the board. And however difficult it might be, I think we have to talk about values. Values touch on all of the medical and economic arguments named in the post–who lives and who dies, who “deserves” access to education and health care and housing, whose responsibility it is to provide these things–all of this is tied up with what we believe about what kind of society we should be. As we try to build a society that deals with reproductive issues justly and compassionately, I think we need to keep talking both about medical/economic frameworks and about religious/nonreligious values.

  • mtgoldma

    Sounds like the President read your blog post before the debate!

  • Rachel

    The way she framed the question is just another example of the lack of importance people put on separation of church and state.

    Also, when can someone just say “birth control is the number 1 health concern of women in this country, so let’s make it a priority!”?

  • Stephanie Lowitt

    In an economic climate where people are not going to change their religious/faith beliefs but are arguing vociferously about the economy and the economics of medical care, this may be the only way to gain footing with those who are on the fence about choice and sex education. Great analysis.

  • Sammy Sass

    it looks like the prez has been reading your feministing posts…

    (scroll to “K” –the list is alphabetical)