Pence vs. Harris: VP Debate Spotlights Differences on Abortion and Religious Freedom

Given the candidates’ opposing views, tonight’s vice presidential debate could feature heated exchanges over those issues.

An attendee walks up stairs outside Kingsbury Hall on the University of Utah campus, October 6, 2020, during preparations ahead of Wednesday's vice presidential debate, in Salt Lake City, Utah.
An attendee walks up stairs outside Kingsbury Hall on the University of Utah campus, October 6, 2020, during preparations ahead of Wednesday's vice presidential debate, in Salt Lake City, Utah. (photo: Robyn Beck / AFP/Getty)

WASHINGTON — The only scheduled vice presidential debate between Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., and Vice President Mike Pence should provide an opportunity for voters to get some clarity on religious freedom and abortion from two candidates who have historically taken starkly opposing stances on these issues.

And a clash over abortion will likely take place given that the Biden-Harris ticket has embraced policies like late-term abortions and taxpayer-funded abortion, which are both issues that Pence raised in the 2016 vice presidential debate. During that debate with Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., Pence said that “a society can be judged by how it deals with its most vulnerable, the aged, the infirm, the disabled, and the unborn.” He said that “the very idea that a child that is almost born into the world could still have their life taken from them is just anathema to me,” and pointed out that “Hillary Clinton wants to repeal the longstanding provision in the law where we said we wouldn't use taxpayer dollars to fund abortion.” 

In contrast, when asked last year if there was ever a point at which abortion would be considered immoral, Harris said that “it’s up to a woman to make that decision.” 

She has also advocated for the repeal of the Hyde Amendment’s ban on taxpayer funding of abortion, and she asked  Biden in a primary debate last year, “Why did it take so long until you were running for president to change your position on the Hyde Amendment?”

The debate will kick off tonight at 9 at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.

Following the nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court, Harris warned that Roe v. Wade could be overturned. Pence called Barrett “someone of great character, of great intellect, who has a judicial philosophy that will uphold the Constitution of the United States.” 

When Justice Brett Kavanaugh was nominated for the Supreme Court in 2018, Pence remarked that he did want to see Roe overturned but noted he hadn’t “been nominated for the Supreme Court” himself, and that it wasn’t an issue he’d discussed with Kavanaugh. 

It is likely that Pence will utilize similar messaging if questioned about Barrett’s view on Roe, as she faces a contested confirmation battle that has been complicated by the recent spread of coronavirus in the White House and the Senate. And President Trump pushed back on the notion that Roewas “on the ballot” with Barrett’s confirmation last week, in his presidential debate with Biden.


Records on Abortion

Pence has highlighted his pro-life stance from the start of his time as vice president in 2017, when he became the first U.S. vice president to attend the March for Life in person. Recently, Pence has been on a “Life Wins” tour with the pro-life lobby group Susan B. Anthony List to highlight the Trump administration’s pro-life gains. On that tour, he became the first sitting vice president to visit a pro-life pregnancy center. 

He told supporters in Pennsylvania last month that “we need more conservatives on the Supreme Court of the United States” in light of the Court striking down “a law that said that — that if you’re performing abortions in an abortion clinic, that you have to have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital,” in a reference to the June Medical v. Russo decision.

Harris’ close alignment with the abortion-rights lobby has also been similarly clear, dating back to her time as California’s attorney general from 2011-2017. Catholic News Agency recently highlighted how Harris’ 2016 Senate campaign was helped by $38,830 from the “abortion policy/pro-abortion rights” sector. 

And, while serving as attorney general, she met with Planned Parenthood representatives just prior to orchestrating a raid on the home of pro-life activist and investigative journalist David Daleiden, following the release of his undercover videos alleging that the abortion group was trafficking in fetal remains for profit. Harris also drafted legislation at the abortion provider’s instruction to change the state penal code to make secretly recording and distributing communications with health care providers a crime. 

Harris aggressively opposed pro-life legislation during her primary run last year when she proposed that “states that have a history of passing legislation designed to prevent or limit women’s access to reproductive health care will be required to come before my Department of Justice. Until we determine their laws are constitutional, they will not take effect.”  She is also a co-sponsor of the “Women’s Health Protection Act,” which would end virtually all state limits on abortions, including waiting periods and 20-week bans.


Religious Freedom 

Religious freedom is another crucial issue where a clash could occur between Harris and Pence. Harris has repeatedly sponsored legislation in the Senate that would amend the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) to specify that religious exemptions should not apply to protections “against discrimination or the promotion of equal opportunity” and “access to, information about, referrals for, provision of, or coverage for, any health care item or service.” The phrasing in the act could apply to Christian foster care organizations who object to placing children with same-sex couples, or medical providers who object to participating in providing abortions.

Harris has also raised concerns about anti-Catholic hostility due to her questioning focused on the Catholic faith of judicial nominee Brian Buescher, a member of Knights of Columbus, during his December 2018 Senate confirmation hearing. She specifically questioned his views on marriage and abortion. 

“Were you aware that the Knights of Columbus opposed a woman’s right to choose when you joined the organization?” she asked. She also questioned if he was “aware that the Knights of Columbus opposed marriage equality when [he] joined the organization” and whether he had “ever, in any way, assisted with or contributed to advocacy against women’s reproductive rights.”

In remarks last week, Pence referenced similarly hostile questioning Judge Barrett received from Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., in her 2017 confirmation. 

“When you read your speeches, the conclusion one draws is that the dogma lives loudly within you and that’s of concern,” Feinstein said at the time. Pence quoted those words Thursday telling supporters: “Well, I got news for the Democrats and the Hollywood elites: That dogma lives loudly in me. That dogma lives loudly in hundreds of millions of Americans. And every American who cherishes faith has the right to live and work and worship according to the dictates of our faith and conscience enshrined in the Constitution of the United States.”

It is also possible that Harris’ past issues with Pence’s Christian faith will come up in the debate, in light of her criticism last year of his religiously based views including his 2002 comment that he “never eats alone with a woman other than his wife.” 

In March 2019, she told MSNBC, “I disagree with most of what the vice president stands for, when he makes decisions about our LGBTQ community in a way that doesn’t understand that they should be entitled to full equality and all rights under the law as any other American. I disagree with him when he suggests it’s not possible to have meetings with women alone by himself. I think that’s ridiculous — the idea that you would deny a professional woman the opportunity to have a meeting with the vice president of the United States is outrageous.” 

Alyssa Farah, Pence’s press secretary at the time, replied to Harris that “he’s elevated women to positions of leadership throughout his career & relies on their advice & counsel.”

Harris’ claims about Pence’s views on the LGBTQ community are not unique; last year, he was attacked by primary candidate and former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg for his views on marriage, which Pence believes is the union of one man and one woman. Buttigeig, in reference to his own homosexuality, said, “That’s the thing I wish the Mike Pences of the world would understand: that if you’ve got a problem with who I am, your problem is not with me. Your quarrel, sir, is with my creator.”

“My family and I have a view of marriage that’s informed by our faith," Pence said in reply, "And we stand by that, but that doesn’t mean that we’re critical of anyone else who has a different point of view." Pence referenced his “good relationship” working with then-Mayor Buttigieg during his time as governor of Indiana and added that, “I think every American cherishes the right of each of us to really live out our faith and live out our beliefs." 


Strategy and Messaging

With recent polling showing that Harris is just three percentage points ahead of Biden with likely voters at 48% compared to 45%, both candidates will be eager to shift the needle in favor of their respective party tickets in tonight’s debate. 

When asked about Pence’s messaging on abortion and religious freedom ahead of the debate, Laura Schlapp, director of regional media for Pence, referred the Register to comments that he made on Salem Radio Network News on these issues touting the Trump administration’s accomplishments.

“We suspended policies of the last administration that were working against conscience protections for healthcare providers in the country. We reinstated the Mexico City Policy, which prevents taxpayer dollars from being used to fund or promote abortion around the world,” Pence said. “And this President, working with pro-life legislators in the Congress of the United States, signed into the law a bill that allowed every state in the Union to defund the largest abortion provider in America. In addition to all of that, President Trump has seen confirmed more than 200 conservatives to our federal courts, including two Supreme Court justices.”

“When you lay down that record and you compare that with the agenda of Joe Biden and the radical Democrats, especially when it comes to life, the choice in this election has never been clearer,” he said. “If you cherish the sanctity of life, if you cherish religious liberty, if you cherish all of the ideals enshrined in our Bill of Rights and our founding documents, the choice is clear: We need four more years of President Donald Trump in the White House.”

Harris’ campaign did not reply to a request for comment about how the Democratic vice presidential nominee planned to address abortion and religious freedom, if those issues come up in the debate.

Michael Wear, the former director of faith outreach for Obama’s 2012 campaign, told the Register that “it’s really important especially given the state of the race right now for Harris’ approach to this debate to not be so much that she’s debating Mike Pence but that she’s making the case for the Biden-Harris ticket as compared to the Trump ticket.” 

“Harris shouldn’t allow herself to get into a debate against Mike Pence tomorrow night, the focus has to remain on Trump and if that happens then I think she’ll make the case just by doing that,” he said.

As for abortion and the Supreme Court nomination, Wear anticipated that Harris would be following Biden’s lead on those issues. He said that Biden “approaches the issue of abortion in a way that’s full of moral nuance and that is not antagonistic and I would expect that that will be represented tomorrow, that is how the Biden Harris ticket will be represented.” 

However, Barrett’s nomination appears to have induced Biden himself to become less nuanced in his promotion of abortion as Election Day approaches. 

Asked during a town hall on Monday about how he would respond if Barrett is confirmed and subsequently joins with other Supreme Court conservatives to overturn the Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion, Biden doubled down on his other recent pronouncements in favor of unrestricted abortion rights. Biden replied that if that did happen, “the only responsible response to that would be to pass legislation making Roe the law of the land. That’s what I would do.” 

Nonetheless, Wear expects Harris to approach any discussion of Barrett’s nomination in a manner similar to the way Biden approached it in the first debate, “which is that the focus should not be on Amy Coney Barrett, that the second Democrats are debating the merits of a particular nomination, what gets lost is the duplicity in Trump and McConnell putting forward anyone at all.”

And while he didn’t think it was likely to happen, Wear warned that “it would be a big mistake if Harris put on her Judiciary Committee hat during the debate tomorrow and decided to prosecute Amy Coney Barrett’s record.”

A pro-abortion protestor, center, uses a megaphone as pro-life demonstrators rally outside the U.S. Supreme Court during the March for Life, Friday, Jan. 20, 2023, in Washington, D.C.

America’s Abortion Impasse

EDITORIAL: An odd legislative drama playing out in Michigan this week draws an important distinction between the two parties when it comes to dissenting views on abortion policy.