Yes, you can ask tough questions of pro-choice candidates

Yes, you can ask tough questions of pro-choice candidates October 12, 2012

Last night was the only Vice Presidential debate we’ll get in this cycle. Almost all of that debate and attendant media coverage is outside the purview of this blog. But right there at the end, the moderator got into religion. Although the answers the candidates gave were interesting, let’s focus simply on the questions from journalist Martha Raddatz:

RADDATZ: I want to — we’re — we’re almost out of time here.

RADDATZ: I want to move on, and I want to return home for these last few questions. This debate is, indeed, historic. We have two Catholic candidates, first time, on a stage such as this. And I would like to ask you both to tell me what role your religion has played in your own personal views on abortion.

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…

RADDATZ: … please talk personally about this, if you could.

Congressman Ryan?

RADDATZ: Vice President Biden?

RADDATZ: Congressman Ryan.

RADDATZ: I want to go back to the abortion question here. If the Romney-Ryan ticket is elected, should those who believe that abortion should remain legal be worried?

RADDATZ: I’m — I’m going to move on to this closing question because we are running out of time.

You will note that the pointed follow-up question went to Ryan, not Biden. And I’m all for follow-up questions. But why just to Ryan?

Journalists just have remarkable trouble asking pointed follow-up questions of politicians who support abortion rights — no matter how extreme their views might be on the matter.

Now, perhaps Raddatz doesn’t know enough to know that people would disagree whether Biden understands Roman Catholic teaching on abortion, much less accepts it. Perhaps that’s not where she should direct a tough follow-up question.

But how about asking him whether he could envision any limitations on abortion at all, whatsoever? How about asking him if he thinks it should be legal to kill an unborn child simply because that child is a female? How about asking him if he thinks that there is anything wrong with terminating a pregnancy because the fetus has Down syndrome?

And should a question about abortion be tied to both men’s religious views? Ryan answered that religion and science inform his views on protection of unborn life. Biden said his religion only requires him to be personally opposed to abortion and that he can’t force Muslims to also oppose abortion. But is there too much religion — and too little science — in how Raddatz framed this question? In how journalists treat opposition to abortion in general?

Obviously religion plays a huge role in many people’s commitment to the abortion issue. We’re big fans of media coverage that explores that role. But is the particular approach journalists take to religion and abortion accurately conveying the reasoning behind the various sides here?

Imagine of woman having trouble coming up with questions via Shutterstock.

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  • It seems to me that the question was a soft-ball lob to Biden to show what a “good” Catholic looks like. Of course, I’m a little cynical of the MSM on this topic, and I apologize for letting it show. I actually thought the topic was fair, however. And Biden performed admirably at the prompt. Of course, he completely misrepresented the Catholic teaching on the subject, which he is known for. But given the reason for the question, you can see why only Ryan was followed-up with, and why all the pointed follow-ups for Biden that you list were never asked. I bet she never even dreamed of them. I would have like to ask about the whole “not forcing my beliefs on others” thing. After all, every law, all of them, is a forcing of a particular belief on others — specifically on those who believe otherwise. Laws against theft are not for people who never would take someone’s stuff without permission, but for those who think it’s ok to do so. Doesn’t legalized abortion force us all to be like Biden and accept his views on this? At any rate, even if it was a journalistic leg-up for Biden, the question was an opportunity also for Ryan, and it may have backfired.

  • Dan Crawford

    I find it troubling that no one ever asks “pro-life” candidates how they reconcile their “pro-life” position with their ardent support of outsourcing jobs, corporate medicine, and destroying the food stamp, medicare and medicaid programs. And apparently, you don’t want Ryan to be challenged on how he reconciles his Catholicism with his declaration that Ayn Rand’s atheistic social darwinism and economic “theories” changed his life. There are more than enough questions about both parties and candidates of both parties, but apparently someone who declares he is “pro-life” gets a free pass. And even “pro-life” candidates are capable of demanding that pregnant mistresses get an abortion.

    • “No one ever asks”? Are you sure about that? I get asked that all the time.

  • magnificatlady

    Oh please Dan, yet another deflection from the direct question. This appears to be the standard response when pro-choice advocates are asked a straightforward question about when life begins and if abortion is the taking of that life. All you can come up with is “you want to take away programs for the poor, blah, blah, blah”
    Get your facts straight first on Ryan’s statements concerning Rand! And if you really want to compare the cutting back on wasteful spending on programs that basically keep people poor and will bankrupt our entire nation to that of ending the life of another human being pitting the mother against her unborn child in viewing that child as a burden rather than a gift, you are the one who lacks charity and rather than helping your fellow man or ones less fortunate you hand that responsibility to the state!

  • Julia

    The questions Radditz asked Ryan & Biden were questions pro-choicers would want asked.
    It’s another instance of a liberal woman media person assuming that “women” are monolithical in their concerns.
    Such women can’t imagine that there could be any reason other than idiotic religious precepts leading a woman to be pro-life. Hence, the question is entirely focused on religious beliefs and their influence on the candidate.

  • Mike

    In these discussions, it is pro-life candidates who want to change the status quo and remove constitutional rights. Given that, it makes sense that they be asked a follow up. Ryan was merely asked a more probing question about the policy implication if his position. He wasn’t asked about rape/incest, for instance, which are the parallel questions to Mollie’s gotcha questions.

    • Ryan wasn’t asked about IVF and contraception, either. If he believes life begins at conception, then he’s probably against IVF. Not a position he’s eager to advertise in this race, I’m sure.

    • Mollie

      Of course, that same standard — about changing the status quo — doesn’t apply when we’re talking about redefining marriage to include same-sex couples.
      Now why is that? Why, then, is the journalistic standard suddenly shockingly different?

      • Mike

        I think pro-SSM politicians are asked tough questions. But the issue is different, in a sense, since those opposed to SSM are now in the position of explaining why the government should discriminate when the issue becomes an equality one.

        • Mark Baddeley

          In other words, my moral concerns should be privileged by journalism and yours shouldn’t. Welcome to the objectivity of liberal journalism.

        • Will

          “That’s DIFFERENT!” What dazzling consistency!

  • Agree, Dan Crawford. If we’re going to discuss how one candidate reconciles his Catholic faith with his pro-abortion rights position — a position that Romney and Giuliani have also shared, in the past anyway — shouldn’t we also be discussing how the other candidate reconciles his Catholic faith with his Ayn Rand views against helping the poor?

    Also, when Ryan tried to argue that the Catholic Church is suing the Obama administration, I was waiting for Biden to point out that the nuns and plenty of lay Catholics support healthcare reform. But it was better to move on and cover more issues.

    • “Against helping the poor”? I wish he were asked such a loaded question, too. After all, there are many ways of helping the poor, and governmental programs are only one way. Yet the liberal media seem to think there’s only one way, the government, and anyone who doesn’t want a government program to solve a problem is against helping people. I wish he were asked that question.

  • Julia

    I noticed that Ryan was careful to separate his own opinions from what Romney would or would not do regarding abortion policy.
    The Vice-President doesn’t set policy, so he answered how a Romney administration would deal with abortion.

  • Mollie

    Let’s just go ahead and try to discuss the matter at hand. How could we improve questions on abortions? Why do the media have such tremendous difficulty asking good questions about it?
    I’d be interested in any thoughtful self-reflection from all sides.
    I recognize that people are quite jittery about politics these days, but this abortion issue is a perennial topic. And a very important one.
    How can we improve the way we ask candidates policy questions about the topic?

  • Kate

    Nicole – the *Bishops* support healthcare reform. The suit isn’t about opposition to healthcare reform, it is about a particular mandate (not legislatively instituted, note) that requires organizations that offer health insurance to employees to include contraception and abortifacient coverage, with a insufficient (in fact, unprecedentedly narrow) conscience exemption. The precedent set is troubling, which is why ‘the nuns’ and other liberal Catholics – as well as many protestants and some representatives of non-Christian faiths – have made statements against the mandate.

    But your post does underline how ridiculously poor reporting has been on that issue as well as many other issues of importance to religious people – I would imagine that a lot of people have the same misconception you seem to have.

  • Julia

    “the nuns and plenty of lay Catholics support healthcare reform”

    Nuns and lay Catholics don’t set USCCB policy. The Catholic Church is not a democracy. The bishops are not objecting to all of Obamacare, just certain aspects of it that became known many months after they originally supported the general concept.

    • True, the Catholic Church is not a democratic institution. But it does have vocal dissenters, and it does change positions over time, and it has admitted to being wrong in the past. Meanwhile, we don’t live in a theocracy, and candidates are allowed — if not encouraged, once upon a time! — to break with their church leaders when it comes to applying personal beliefs to the broader public. (Again, see Romney as governor, and the old LDS positions on black people, marriage, etc.)

      Will GetReligion ever discuss conservative Catholic/Christian candidates promoting un-Catholic/Christian positions on economic inequality, the environment, death penalty, torture, war, etc.? Or is this site only interested in politics when it comes to abortion, contraception and gay marriage?

      • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

        Nicole, “positions on economic inequality, the environment, death penalty, torture, war, etc.” are positions that, in the Catholic tradition, are called prudential judgments. Obviously those issues need attention, but the way one approaches them is not set in stone. There are different solutions to those issues, some better than others, and the disagreement over those approaches is what drives so much of politics.

        “[A]bortion, contraception and gay marriage,” on the other hand, in Catholic teaching at least, are all intrinsic evils, always and everywhere wrong, so the only way for any Catholic to discuss them is to say they’re wrong and intolerable.

        And this site is not for discussing those views per se — it is to discuss how well or not the media cover those views. The media tend to focus on the intrinsic evils when it comes to a religious response from politicians, that’s why there’s so much discussion about that aspect on these pages.

        • dalea

          One of the problems in covering RC positions is the church speaks in a language that is not standard American English. What is ‘Prudential Judgment’? I suspect it is something like the ‘reasonable man’ standard used in fiduciary situations, but I am not sure. Either the press needs to translate the terms into more collequial terms or there needs to be an expanded explanation. I am not very clear on what ‘intrinsic evil’ means as applied to the three concepts listed.

          • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

            Prudential judgment means that whatever the topic that’s being discussed — poverty, health care, taxes, war — is left to the best judgment of whoever’s in charge of dealing with that within certain guidelines. Obviously, taxing people 75 percent of their income isn’t just (take note, Francois Hollande). Health care should be accessible to all, but what the best way is to accomplish that goal has to be worked out by the government and the greater society. We should take care of the poor, but whether that’s best done by “spreading the wealth around” or by lowering taxes so that individuals can keep more of their own money and give to the poor of their own largesse is a prudential judgment that has to be hammered out by the society.

            Intrinsic evil is a term that many U.S. bishops have been throwing around lately and if you don’t understand it then probably a lot of other people don’t either. It means that the action, whatever it is, is always and everywhere and in all circumstances morally wrong. It’s also something that can be known by human reason. Since abortion is the direct killing of an innocent, unborn child, it is always and everywhere wrong. Contraception is the deliberate frustration of one of the proper ends of the marital act (those two ends being the unity of the couple and the possible procreation of a new child), so it is always and everywhere wrong. And since two men or two women cannot marry, that’s always and everywhere wrong as well.

            Not sure if those are the best explanations, but it’s the best I can do and I hope it gives you and whoever might read this a better understanding.

  • Mollie, like anything else, if reporters could actually either set aside their own passions regarding the issues or perhaps better yet think like the “opposition,” I believe they would come up with way better questions. And more interesting end products. When reporters ask questions while (tacitly) rooting for a particular view, they end up asking questions designed to reinforce that view. Asking questions that honestly try to understand the other side, however, is where insights are achieved. Reporter-as-advocate has taken over for reporter-as-detective, and that’s a shame. I sometimes think that reporter-advocates are a little bit afraid to really dig deep, lest they begin to question their own positions on those issues.

  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    The National Right to Life Committee had a couple of questions they would have liked to heard asked of the Vice President ( “Mr. Biden, since you yourself voted for several major types of pro-life legislation for a period of decades in the U.S. Senate — taking positions the same as Mr. Ryan on those issues — when exactly did you decide that those positions were ‘extreme’?”
    “Mr. Biden, isn’t it hypocritical for you to criticize Mr. Ryan for supporting positions for which you yourself often voted as a U.S. senator — especially since your record is opposite the positions taken by Barack Obama on those same issues?”

    So where were Martha Raddatz’s notes on that?

    • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

      Oops — meant to write, “like to have heard”

  • Sarah

    Mollie, I think reporters should try to ask questions about abortion which are not the same questions that are always asked. This would actually take some thought. Maybe discuss candidates’ positions on the intersection of their religions’ theological positions with evolving scientific insight into the development of a fertilized egg. Or ask candidates which countries, in their minds, have an abortion system they would like the U.S. to partially or fully emulate and why. Or ask candidates what sort of situations or philosophical arguments they have heard of that most strongly challenge their current stance on abortion.

  • Julia

    I’d like to see both candidates asked what would be the consequences of a complete overturn of Roe v Wade.
    Should the issue go back to the states or Washington. Why?

    Is it better to have courts made the decisions on abortion or elected legislators/

    I also liked the question somebody else proposed – is there another country’s way of dealing with abortion that the US would be wise to adopt and why.

  • FW Ken

    The vice-president took the “personally opposed, but unwilling to legislate my views” tack, which would be worth a follow-up. He seems quite willing to legislate Catholic social (i.e. economic) doctrine, and I suspect he would preach against the death penalty, in union with Bl. John Paul II and Pope Benedict.

    • SK

      I think his social views have more to do with his party line than his catholic faith.

  • Listening to the question, “If the Romney-Ryan ticket is elected, should those who believe that abortion should remain legal be worried?” just reminded me of how this complex issue gets reduced to sound bites and whether you’re on one side or another. One can actually think abortion should be legal…but oppose Roe v. Wade (as a bad bit of judicial decision making). But trying to explain that often makes people’s heads spin.

  • Mark Baddeley

    This feels too much like a ‘gotcha’ question, but if Biden personally believes that life begins at conception but doesn’t want to impose that view on others, would this apply if there was a substantial movement that decided that blacks, or gays, or Jews, are not human beings – would he be ‘personally convinced but unwilling to impose’ in that situation as well? In other words – what is it about *this* issue that makes it somewhat morally unique and his personal convictions must *not* inform public policy on something as basic as ‘what is being ended is a human life’.

    And something similar can be asked of Ryan – if he believes life begins at conception, why *isn’t* he going to try and come after doctors, mothers etc as murderers? Would he do that in other cases?

    This is an area where both sides treat this as a somewhat different moral issue to ones comparable by Biden’s and Ryan’s own statements, illuminating how and why might be informative.

  • Harris

    From reading the transcript, I’m not sure that the second question was especially unfair. Plausibly it may even have been something of a gift to the Romney campaign. It’s plenty clear that a number of women (say 40 percent) may have concerns about the prospect of a Romney presidency, not least based on earlier statements by the candidate and his vice presidential nominee. They certainly sounded extreme. So Raddatz asks a question that allows them to back away, to assume a moderate stance. The question underneath was something like, “are you as crazy as we’ve heard?” So Ryan gets the opportunity to reassure, to sound moderate, to continue the turn in tone that Romney made in the week prior.

    That turn in tone, also suggests why a more pointed question to Biden might not work. It would have been seen as trying to narrow Biden’s appeal rather than broaden it. That would have been a differing rhetorical tack for the Vice President, and thus lead many to label the questioner as biased.

  • Martin t

    For my part I would have appreciated asking Ryan about IVF and about aborting Downs children. Make them both squirm.

  • MJBubba

    Mollie, here is a question that should be considered:
    “At what point does a fetus obtain human rights?”
    President Obama famously dodged the question when Pastor Warren asked it four years ago, implying that it is a theological question. However, it really is a policy/legal/political question and could potentially be really helpful in clarifying some of the abortion issues.

  • deacon john m. bresnahan

    What I don’t understand is why Republicans so easily go along with using moderators who are part of the MSM liberal network of reporters or commenters . I keep reading more and more being revealed about how close the relationship is between Raddatz and the Obama family–parties together, wedding connections. Can’t the debate commission find independent people who are not part of the liberal media-liberal politicians incestuous mutual support party.
    And has been pointed out by many it is the pointed questions that media people never think of asking
    because of the liberal media “bubble” they exist in starting from their liberal college campus days. We were better off when reporters earned their spurs by being “ink-stained wretches” covering the mean streets and tough beats instead of being formed by schools of journalism with their exhorbitant tuition costs.
    And Raddatz did a terrible job letting unhinged Joe Biden rudely interrupt Ryan (by one count 82 times) and Raddatz herself (by one count 2o or so times.) Yet the media went semi-hysterical praising her.