What Candidates Aren’t Talking About at the Debates, and Why it Matters

There was a notable spike in excitement during Tuesday night’s Democratic debate when the candidates were asked about abortion and reproductive health. It was definitely an important moment—over the course of multiple rounds of debates and ongoing town hall series, abortion has been conspicuously absent from the conversation, and the #AskAboutAbortion campaign has been calling for more discussion around reproductive rights since the campaign kicked off—but it still wasn’t enough.

In the current political moment, abortion deserves more than a quick-fire round of responses, and many other critical issues deserve more air time, too.

Healthcare has taken center-stage as one of the most discussed and debated topics throughout the 2020 campaign, which makes the persistent silence around abortion access even more frustrating. The last three years of attacks on the Affordable Care Act were also attacks on women’s access to sexual and reproductive health care—and just this month, the Supreme Court announced that they will hear a case challenging a restrictive abortion law from Louisiana.

With five conservative justices on the Court, this ruling will likely have an enormous impact on future abortion restriction laws, and activists fear that the forthcoming decision could undue decades of legal precedent. The health, bodies and lives of millions of Americans are at risk. Especially now, when women’s rights to control their own bodies are being threatened across the country, candidates need to continue to speak up.

This is also the political landscape that necessitates conversation about #MeToo in every political arena. Movement leaders have been calling on debate moderators and candidates to talk about how they will address sexual harassment and violence. Tuesday was even the second anniversary of #MeToo going viral—yet despite powerful activism from Tarana Burke and other #MeToo leaders, gender-based violence and discrimination were almost invisible during the debate. 

To date, there have also been no questions about LGBTQ rights in any of the debates thus far—a dangerous oversight in the midst of ongoing attacks on the identities, families and individual lives of queer and trans people by the Trump administration.

The rights of LGBTQ workers are similarly now facing scrutiny from the Supreme Court: three cases that will determine if LGBTQ people are protected from employment discrimination under Title VII will have a huge impact on the lives of over 8 million LGBTQ workers, and a conservative ruling would continue to allow people to be legally fired for being gay or transgender.

The Equality Act would amend Title VII to explicitly ban discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, eliminating the need to go through the Supreme Court. Although this Act passed the House in May, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has refused to hold a vote on it in the Senate. Why not ask the candidates how quick they’d be to sign it if it ever reached their desk—or what they will do if it can’t pass through Congress? There is a lot at stake this year for LGBTQ Americans, and these issues deserve space in the Democratic debates.

It was also an act of stunning ignorance that Tuesday’s debate never touched on the climate crisis facing the planet. This is an issue that truly knows no identities—although climate change will disproportionately affect women, low-income people and people of color. In the wake of widespread strikes and celebrity arrests drawing attention to the critical need for climate solutions, it is critical that lawmakers be pressed to articulate their own.

Debate moderators in the future would do well to heed the calls from organizations calling for debate questions on urgent social issues like abortion and LGBTQ rights and global issues like climate change. What candidates talk about on the debate stage doesn’t just impact the headlines—those answers, and the issues raised in these forums, impact our lives.


Katie Fleischer (she/they) is a Ms. editorial assistant working on the Front and Center series and Keeping Score.