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Why the abortion and faith question is relevant

By Anika Rahman, Special to CNN
updated 4:34 PM EDT, Mon October 15, 2012
Anika Rahman says Martha Raddatz's question about faith and abortion was on target.
Anika Rahman says Martha Raddatz's question about faith and abortion was on target.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Debate moderator was criticized for asking question about candidates' faith and abortion
  • Anika Rahman says the question gave voters important information
  • Rahman: Can a candidate reconcile church teachings with reproductive rights?

Editor's note: Anika Rahman is president and chief executive of the Ms. Foundation for Women.

(CNN) -- After Thursday's vice presidential debate, MSNBC's Lawrence O'Donnell was emphatic that moderator Martha Raddatz's question about the role of the candidates' faith in their positions on abortion had "absolutely no business in a government that has a separation of church and state."

In the now-famous words of Vice President Joe Biden, "That's a bunch of malarkey."

All of us are guided by an internal code of morality, whether it is dictated by religion or by personal responsibility to humankind. Both Rep. Paul Ryan and Biden were explicit that their faith informs all of their decision-making, and that includes issues related to a woman's body.

Anika Rahman
Anika Rahman

"I don't see how a person can separate their public life from their private life or from their faith," Ryan said. Biden echoed his sentiments, saying his religion "defines" who he is and has "particularly informed" his social doctrine. (The difference in their approaches lies in Biden's refusal to shape national abortion policy according to his personal beliefs, an important distinction for candidates to make.)

While abortion is often framed as a matter of rights (with many women supporting it merely on principle rather than personal necessity), its implications for women go far beyond the mere theoretical.

Mitt Romney's changing record on abortion
Martha Raddatz reins in debaters
Biden, Ryan hold lively VP debate

For so many women, especially the 25 million women who are currently living in poverty, the ability to control when and whether they have children is the critical link to their family's economic security. With so much of the presidential race focused on the economy, it is unfortunate that the campaigns have not drawn attention to the impact that unintended childbearing has on a woman's personal economy.

More than 10% of American families are thrust into poverty within one month of the birth of a child. Since the United States is one of just a handful of industrialized countries worldwide that doesn't mandate paid maternity leave, a new mother in America may be forced to return to work immediately after her child's birth. And that is only if she is amongst the privileged few who is able to return to work at all.

With the cost of child care exceeding the average cost of rent in half of all states, this woman may not be able to afford the child care she needs to continue working. Millions of American women are one unintended pregnancy away from financial despair.

Where a candidate stands on reproductive rights influences everything from health care coverage to economic issues to basic human rights, all extremely relevant to a voter's complete understanding of a presidential candidate and his closest advisers. The impact of a candidate's religion on these issues matters.

For women specifically, whose perspectives are often shaped differently from men's due to biological factors and historical inequality, an explanation of a candidate's position on abortion -- and the moral or religious justification that influenced that position -- is valuable in determining far more than the availability of a common medical procedure.

In fact, a candidate's full stance on abortion symbolizes their understanding of the realities of women's lives and the actions necessary to enable American parents to live up to their responsibilities.

Can the candidate reconcile anti-abortion religious teachings with respect for the legal right to make reproductive choices that impact the direction of women's lives? Will the candidate's religion affect his or her support of policies that enable women to achieve equal success to men?

Martha Raddatz was a fantastic moderator. She challenged two wealthy, deeply religious men to articulate their spiritual basis for positions that have enormous significance to the vast majority of American women who don't see themselves represented in political conversations about their bodies.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Anika Rahman.

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