Presidential candidates used to talk about the Supreme Court and abortion in code words like "litmus test" and "strict constructionist," but at Wednesday night's third and final presidential debate, the candidates went all in with their answers.
Hillary Clinton reiterated her support for Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion until viability nationwide. Asked by moderator Chris Wallace whether he wants to see the court overturn Roe v. Wade, Donald Trump several times simply described what would happen if it is, which is that states would set abortion policies.
"That'll happen automatically, in my opinion, because I am putting pro-life justices on the court," Trump said. "I will say this: It will go back to the states, and the states will then make a determination."
Wallace asked Clinton about her 2003 vote against the federal Partial Birth Abortion Ban, which didn't ban later abortions but rather outlawed a specific method of abortion without an exception for the health of a woman.
"Roe v. Wade very clearly sets out that there can be regulations on abortion so long as the life and the health of the mother are taken into account," Clinton said. "And when I voted as a senator, I did not think that that was the case."
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The law was narrowly upheld by the Supreme Court in 2007, in a 5-4 vote in which the liberal dissenters accused the court of ignoring its own precedent that abortion regulations must include women's health protections.
On the subject of later abortion, Clinton added, "I have met with women who toward the end of their pregnancy get the worst news one could get, that their health is in jeopardy if they continue to carry to term or that something terrible has happened or just been discovered about the pregnancy."
In responding with a graphic description of a later abortion, Trump likely thrilled the anti-abortion activists who have urged Republicans to paint Democrats as extreme on the issue, by focusing on rare later abortions. "With what Hillary is saying, in the ninth month, you can take the baby and rip the baby out of the womb of the mother just prior to the birth of the baby. Now, you can say that that’s okay, and Hillary can say that that’s okay, but that’s not okay with me."
About 1.2 percent of abortions occur after 21 weeks, and 43 states ban it before viability with limited exceptions.
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Clinton also jumped to broaden her case. "It isn’t only about Roe v. Wade," she said. "It’s about very stringent regulations on women that block them from exercising that choice, to the extent that they are defunding Planned Parenthood. Donald has said he’s in favor of supporting shutting down Planned Parenthood."
Though Trump has praised the women's health provider, he has also said the government should stop providing it with federal funds for contraception and testing for sexually transmitted infections, because many Planned Parenthood affiliates provide abortion.