"Governor Romney, You are on record as telling Mike Huckabee on his television show just about one year ago that you would 'absolutely' support a constitutional amendment that would establish a definition of life as beginning at conception, a so-called "Personhood amendment," as these measures are called. But you have recently stated that you favor exceptions to abortion in cases of rape, incest and threats to the life of the mother. But surely you realize that these two positions are incompatible, especially with respect to rape and incest. How do you reconcile these opposing views?"
"A follow up question: Governor Romney, It is widely agreed that the 'life beginning at conception' or 'personhood' position that you are on record supporting would ban IVF (in vitro fertilization). But as the New York Times and other media outlets have reported, you have several grandchildren who have been born using this method. Are you willing to tell the American people that you would ban this method for them, even though your family has benefitted from the availability of IVF?"
"Congressman Ryan, One of the pieces of legislation you have co-sponsored in Congress is H.R. 358, called the "Protect Life Act." This legislation breaks with current policy and permits hospitals to refuse pregnant women abortions, even in life-threatening situations. The bill even permits hospitals to refuse to make referrals for abortions to other facilities. Are you willing to tell the American people that you would be OK with your wife, or your daughter, going to such a hospital, if they were in such a tragic situation? What do you say to women watching this debate tonight, who may live in rural areas where there is only one accessible hospital, and that one hospital would adopt this policy, if it were to become law?"
These are the questions that I would like to see asked of the Republican candidates in the upcoming debates. The abortion issue typically comes up in at least one presidential debate, and no doubt it will this time as well. But how the question is phrased and how much pushback a moderator is willing to do to with evasive candidates are very crucial. For example, a moderator who simply asks Romney, in general terms, to comment on his well-known changing views on abortion will set the latter up for a platitudinous answer about "realizing that this is a difficult issue for many" and that his own views have "evolved."
Such a broad question will not be as effective in communicating to the audience what actually are the policy stakes in this election. In the case of the questions I have suggested above for Mitt Romney, his eager endorsement of a Personhood Amendment took place only a year ago -- and therefore is much more relevant to voters than his flip-flopping on abortion that took place after his 1994 Senate run. Similarly, it is not enough for Paul Ryan to say, as he said in the wake of the Todd Akin scandal, that he and Romney differ on the rape and incest exceptions but that he defers to the presidential candidate: the bill mentioned above that Ryan co-sponsored was truly unprecedented in its braven disregard for women's lives, and Ryan should have to explain, on national television, why he is willing to let women with life-threatening pregnancies die.
Moderators in presidential debates, who themselves often seem uncomfortable with the topic of abortion often ask "softball" if not confusing questions, but sometimes the issue can provide very dramatic and revealing moments. In 2008, for example, John McCain was widely criticized for the contemptuous way in which he used air quotes around the phrase "women's health" in a discussion of exceptions for later abortions. In a 1992 debate, vice-presidential candidate Dan Quayle made what some consider a gaffe, and others consider a very humanizing comment, when he said he would support his daughter, in the event of an unplanned pregnancy, in "whatever choice she would make." George. H.W. Bush, in a presidential debate in 1988, set off a firestorm when he said there had to be "penalties" for abortion, without specifying who should be penalized. (His nervous handlers the next morning clarified that Bush meant that doctors, not recipients of abortion, should be penalized).
Since the last presidential election in 2008, abortion and contraception have been relentlessly attacked by the Republican Party: the abortion issue nearly derailed the passage of the Affordable Care Act; the issue of contraceptive coverage in that legislation still is under attack and both Romney and Ryan have voiced support for defunding Planned Parenthood; the Republican-led Congress has passed not only the egregious, Orwellian-named "Protect Life Act," but other measures which would also severely affect abortion access. The American people deserve to know what they might actually expect with respect to reproductive health services in a Romney-Ryan presidency. And we also deserve moderators willing to ask the right questions.