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Misinformation and Confusion About Abortion Reigned at Presidential Debate

It was the first debate since the end of federal abortion rights reshaped the country.

Republican presidential candidate, former President Donald Trump delivers remarks during the CNN Presidential Debate at the CNN Studios on June 27, 2024, in Atlanta, Georgia.

In the first presidential debate of 2024, former President Donald Trump defended abortion restrictions levied by Republican-led states across the country and falsely accused Democrats of supporting the murder of babies after they are born. President Joe Biden, who has staked his reelection campaign on reproductive rights, called the end of federal abortion protections “a terrible thing” but did little to articulate his support or clearly push back on Trump’s claims.

Thursday’s debate, hosted by CNN, marked the first time Trump and Biden have faced off in nearly four years. It was also the first debate since the end of federal abortion rights reshaped the country and brought the fight for reproductive rights to the forefront of American politics.

Both candidates reiterated their policy positions on abortion, but the setting of a presidential debate upped the stakes as they attempted to reintroduce themselves to a weary electorate. Trump used his time to spread misinformation about so-called “late term abortions” and lay out his vision for reproductive rights in America: that every state can and should decide how far to restrict abortion.

“The problem they have is they’re radical, because they will take the life of a child in the eighth month, the ninth month, and even after birth — after birth,” Trump said, describing infanticide, which is a crime across the country.

Trump also falsely claimed that under the framework of Roe v. Wade, Democrat-led states allowed the murder of children after birth. While some states do have provisions for abortions in the later stages of pregnancy, abortions in the later stages of pregnancy are exceedingly rare — fewer than 0.9 percent occur after 21 weeks of pregnancy — and typically involve medical complications that may be life-threatening to the pregnant patient or the fetus.

“He’s willing to, as we say, rip the baby out of the womb in the ninth month and kill the baby,” Trump said.

Biden said that if reelected, he would continue to work to restore federal abortion rights, but was at times hard to understand.

“We’re in a state where, in six weeks, you don’t even know whether you’re pregnant or not, but you cannot see a doctor, have you, and have him decide on what your circumstances are, whether you need help,” Biden said. He also struggled to articulate the protections guaranteed by Roe.

In April, Trump indicated he would not support a nationwide abortion ban, instead leaving the issue up to states. On Thursday, Biden said that leaving abortion policy up to the states is akin to leaving policies protecting civil rights up to the states.

He added that many young women are victims of incest and “they can do nothing about it.”

The candidates’ discussion of abortion comes as access to the procedure has been vastly reshaped by the U.S. Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe in 2022. In the two years since the ruling put an end to federal abortion rights, access to the procedure is mostly determined by an ever-changing patchwork of state-level policies and court rulings. Abortion is almost completely illegal in 14 states. It is banned after six weeks of pregnancy in three more. In North Carolina and Nebraska, abortion is banned after 12 weeks; in Arizona, a 15-week ban is in effect.

Biden put the blame squarely on Trump, who himself took credit for “killing” Roe v. Wade through a series of Supreme Court appointments.

The debate covered lots of topics, including the economy, climate, immigration, January 6 and the military, and the moderators did not fact check either candidate. Trump sidestepped a debate question on how to make child care more affordable. He also committed to accepting the results of the election only if “it’s a fair and legal and good election” — a vague description that clearly leaves the door open to a repeat of his 2021 attempt to subvert the results.

Both candidates were asked to address weaknesses: Trump was asked about his criminal convictions, which he is set to be sentenced for in two weeks, just days before his party’s official nominating convention. He has been convicted on 34 counts of falsifying business records and has also been found liable in civil court for sexual abuse, defamation and fraud. Biden was asked about his age; his 82nd birthday is a few weeks after the November election. Trump just turned 78 years old.

With 130 days to go until Election Day, both men are making their appeals to a public that polling suggests is closely divided, with gender expected to play a crucial role in the outcome. A new poll from Quinnipiac University out Wednesday showed Biden has a 13-point lead with women voters overall, while White women remain evenly split between the two candidates. The poll found Trump had a 22-point advantage with men.

Both Biden and Trump have agreed to participate in one more debate, scheduled to be hosted by ABC News on September 10.

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