VP Debate Summary: 1 Question Which Mattered Most to 1 in 6 Viewers

I had heard the rumors that so-called “social issues” would come up in the next few debates, but I have to admit that I wasn’t holding my breath. And for the first 75 minutes of the vice presidential debate on Thursday, I was unsurprised (and unhappy) to not hear anything about a variety of domestic issues including health care, immigration reform, pay equity, and, yes, abortion.

And then, finally —

“I would like to ask you both to tell me what role your religion has played in your own personal views on abortion,” said Martha Raddatz. “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 ... please talk personally about this, if you could.”


Obviously, candidates’ personal views on issues like abortion are important to voters. As I’ve written before, abortion is an important issue to 45% of the voting populace; 1 in 6 voters report being single-issue voters when it comes to abortion. But abortion, like any other issue, is not just about personal beliefs. It is also about policy. It is also about law. And while I was interested in hearing the vice presidential candidates' personal takes, as a voter, I agreed with a point that Joe Biden made earlier in the debate.

Instead, the framing of the question lead to an unfortunately round-about discussion of policy.

Paul Ryan explained, “My faith informs me about how to take care of the vulnerable, of how to make sure that people have a chance in life. Now, you want to ask basically why I'm pro-life? It's not simply because of my Catholic faith. That's a factor, of course. But it's also because of reason and science.”  

Ryan relayed that he believes that life begins at conception after seeing an ultrasound image of his first child at seven weeks, saying that he nicknamed his daughter Liza “Bean.” He now believes that life begins at conception.

Joe Biden agreed with the idea that life begins at conception, saying he shared Ryan’s faith in  Catholic doctrine. But, Biden countered, “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 … I do not believe that we have a right to tell other people that, women [that] they can’t control their body.”

While he came out strong in support of abortion rights on Thursday, Biden has been called an imperfect ally for pro-choice advocates. Like Mitt Romney, Biden changed his stance on abortion while holding political office. Biden is opposed to public funding for abortion. He has voted yes on a federal ban on late-term abortions, which he has continually opposed personally. Still, he is a strong supporter of Roe v. Wade, which he made clear in tonight’s debate.

And Roe v. Wade is where we start to engage with the real issues at stake when it comes to abortion: namely, how would a Romney-Ryan administration differ from an Obama-Biden administration?

“The policy of a Romney administration is to oppose abortion with exceptions for rape, incest and life of the mother,” asserted Paul Ryan.

The issue is that a president cannot directly legislate on the issue of abortion; rather, the most direct way a president can oppose abortion is by hoping to aid in overturning Roe v. Wade (as Romney has pledged to do if he gets the chance) via Supreme Court nominations.

As Biden put it in the debate, “The next president will get one or two Supreme Court nominees. That's how close Roe v. Wade is. Just ask yourself, with Robert Bork being the chief adviser on the court for —for Mr. Romney, who do you think he's likely to appoint? Do you think he's likely to appoint someone like Scalia or someone else on the court far right that would outlaw abortion? I suspect that would happen.”

In contrast, Paul Ryan argued that states would decide the future of abortion (a point which Romney has made in the past), saying “We don't think that unelected judges should make this decision; that people through their elected representatives in reaching a consensus in society through the democratic process should make this determination.”

But beyond the issue of state courts and Supreme Courts, when it comes to pro-life presidency, (and pro-life vice presidency), Paul Ryan inadvertently brought up a policy point which undermines the very criticism he leveled against Joe Biden when it comes to keeping abortion rare: birth control coverage.

While Romney has been accused of blurring the lines when it comes to abortion, saying on Tuesday that there is “no legislation with regards to abortion that I’m familiar with that would become part of my agenda,” his campaign has been clearer in its opposition to contraceptive coverage. Romney has said he would overturn Obamacare on day one of his presidency, which would include overturning the new birth control coverage. And the Romney campaign has explicitly vowed to cut funding to Title X, the Federal Family Planning Program, on the grounds that it “benefits abortion groups like Planned Parenthood.”

The catch for Romney-Ryan and their pro-life administration? If you believe that life begins at conception, and you are morally opposed to abortion, than you should be doing your utmost to prevent unwanted pregnancies — and that means making birth control actually free.

Providing women with no-cost birth control cuts abortion rates by 62-78%, according to a recent study by the Washington University School of Medicine, an impact which researchers call “far greater” than they expected. Since about half of pregnancies each year in America are unintentional, and about half of these unplanned pregnancies are the result of women not using contraception, or using contraception irregularly or incorrectly, it would seem that the best way  to go to reduce the number of abortions in America would be to increase women’s access to contraception. For Romney-Ryan to oppose free birth control while insisting they aim to end abortion seems hypocritical at best. (It should further be noted that outlawing abortion does not end abortion.)

While personal beliefs may be illuminating and important to voters, ultimately what will impact us the most are the policies either administration chooses to implement addressing said issues. Again, I’ll defer to Biden: show me a policy. And further, show me a policy that makes some kind of sense.