Congressman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin
Congressman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin

Credit: by Gage Skidmore on Flickr under CC 2.0

(WOMENSENEWS)– Much of the first and only vice presidential debate on Oct. 11 between Vice President Joe Biden and Mitt Romney’s running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., focused on foreign policy — but the issue of abortion also got a short hearing toward the end.

When moderator Martha Raddatz, senior foreign affairs correspondent for ABC News, asked Ryan point-blank if women who support legalized abortion should be worried about the Romney-Ryan ticket, Ryan paused noticeably before answering.

Activists on both sides of the abortion debate are now scuffling over this "pregnant pause" and other aspects of the candidate’s discussion of abortion.

"The Romney-Ryan ticket is extremely dangerous to women’s health," NARAL Pro-Choice America said in an Oct. 11 press statement and noted that Ryan "refused to say whether American women should be worried about the future of their reproductive freedoms" under a Romney presidency.

The Obama campaign quickly issued a video that criticizes many of Ryan’s statements and singles out this moment. "We saw a troubling silence that should give every woman pause," the screen reads before showing Ryan’s answer.

Raddatz asked Biden and Romney, who are both Catholic, to discuss abortion in the context of their faith and RH Reality Check took issue with couching the question in religious terms, writing that "it frames a woman’s choices as something on which the church is allowed to be the final authority."

On the other side, the anti-choice website LifeNews wrote that Biden "misrepresented" the contraception mandate and that Biden has "succumbed to the pressure of the secularist culture . . . compromising the very teaching of His Church."

Raddatz Praised

As moderator, Raddatz earned praise for her role, with the Washington Post noting that she asked "sharp questions" and pushed for specific answers. The Associated Press concurred while noting that some conservative commentators felt she favored Biden. CNN found that Biden spoke for 41 minutes and 32 seconds while Ryan got 40 minutes and 12 seconds of airtime.

Her performance drew little discussion of her gender even though Candy Crowley is drawing attention as the first woman to moderate a presidential debate in 20 years.

After the Oct. 3 debate where President Barack Obama is widely viewed as losing to Romney, a widely noted Pew Research poll found women split down the middle between Obama and Romney, a big shift from Pew’s September poll that found an 18-point difference favoring the incumbent.

Susan Carroll, a senior scholar at the Center for American Women in Politics at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., said Obama, during that first debate, made no appeal whatsoever to female voters. "I think some discussion of those issues on the Democratic side, whether it be contraception or Paycheck Fairness Act or any of those issues, might specifically appeal to women."

Carroll added that the TV audience for the vice presidential candidates may have been weighted toward women due to Thursday night baseball and football games on other channels. "This is probably going to be more of a female than a male audience," she said with a laugh in an interview before the debate.

In answering Raddatz’s question about whether pro-choice Americans should be worried about a Romney presidency, Ryan said: "We don’t think that unelected judges should make this decision, [we think] that people through their elected representatives, and reaching a consensus in society through the democratic process, should make this determination."

Abortion Restrictions Add Up

Over the past two years state lawmakers have passed 80 abortion restrictions in 2011 and 39 in 2012 as of July, according to the Guttmacher Institute.

Biden pointed out the thin thread by which legalized abortion is hanging at the constitutional level. "The next president will get one or two Supreme Court nominees. That’s how close Roe v. Wade is." He asked whether Romney would nominate "someone like Scalia . . . [who] would outlaw abortion? I suspect that would happen."

A New Yorker blog post called this segment of the debate "a strong exchange for the Obama-Biden ticket."

On the topic of abortion Ryan also said: "The policy of a Romney administration will be to oppose abortion with the exceptions for rape, incest, and life of the mother."

It’s a line that seems to contradict a convoluted statement from Romney earlier this week, when he told an Iowa newspaper, "There’s no legislation with regards to abortion that I’m familiar with that would become part of my agenda." However, he immediately said that by executive order he would reinstate the "Mexico City" policy that bars foreign aid from going to organizations that even provide information about abortion, a policy that Obama ended when he took office. He also said on Oct. 10 that he will "remove funding for Planned Parenthood."

Ryan went on to claim he found "troubling" the Obama administration’s "assault on religious liberties" with regarding to religious and Catholic organizations and contraception.

Debate viewers saw a spirited and combative Biden on the offensive throughout most of the night, sparring with and often interrupting Ryan, who maintained a cooler demeanor. He also proved true to his trademark straight-talking persona, calling one of Ryan’s statements "a bunch of malarkey" and another answer "a bunch of stuff."

But he responded more calmly to the abortion question, saying that while he was Catholic and accepted the church’s position, "I just refuse to impose that on others . . . I do not believe we have a right to tell . . . women that they can’t control their bodies."

He added that religious organizations and Catholic institutions do not have to pay for contraception.

National Right to Life noted in a press statement ahead of the debate that Biden has a mixed record on abortion rights during his decades-long congressional career, noting that he supported the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits federal funding for abortion.

Along with abortion, Biden also hit other points that Obama supporters complained went unaddressed in the presidential debate last week, such as Romney’s disparaging remarks about the 47 percent of people who don’t pay income taxes. Biden said many of these people were soldiers and the elderly. Women are also likely the bulk of this percentage.

Samantha Kimmey is a writer covering women and politics this election season.

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