The event sponsored by Planned Parenthood Action Fund — the group's political arm — was the first of the election season centered on abortion. It came on the sidelines of the South Carolina Democratic Party's state convention, a pivotal gathering of the party faithful in the South's first primary state.
The candidates were united in decrying a series of tough, recent abortion restrictions approved by Republican-controlled legislatures around the country geared to ultimately provoke a Supreme Court case that could overturn the landmark Roe v. Wade decision.
Those efforts have come alongside attempts to strip taxpayer funding from Planned Parenthood, which abortion rights advocates and some leading medical groups say would make it harder for low-income women to get access to basic health care, not only abortion.
"We've been on defense for 47 years and it's not working," Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren said of Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion. Warren, who turned 70 on Saturday, said trying to restrict abortion usually boils down to sexism.
"You're not going to lock women back in the kitchen. You're not going to tell us what to do," she declared, eliciting a standing ovation from hundreds in the crowd, many sporting pink Planned Parenthood T-shirts.
Most Democratic voters support abortion rights, though the issue doesn't always energize the party's base in South Carolina and other conservative states. Despite that, the Democrats vying for the chance to try and unseat President Donald Trump next year were unwavering in their support for the procedure and in their defense of Planned Parenthood — showing just how far the party has moved compared to presidential races in recent memory.
"If President Trump wants a war on America's women, it's a war he's going to have and it's a war he's going to lose," declared New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand. California Sen. Kamala Harris promised to create a federal system of "preclearance" mandating that states passing major abortion restrictions be subject to federal review, similar to how states with histories of racial discrimination long had their electoral rules scrutinized under the Voting Rights Act.
Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, said things have come a long way since even the 2016 Democratic primary, when activists had to fight to get moderators at general subject debates to ask about abortion and often faced responses like, "They're all pro-choice so why should we would waste time talking to that?'"
Even as the party's top candidates more openly embrace abortion rights, tensions around them have nonetheless already shaken up the 2020 Democratic field. Former Vice President Joe Biden, who leads in early polls, long supported the "Hyde Amendment," a congressional ban on using taxpayer money to pay for most abortions. But Biden dramatically reversed himself earlier this month amid intense criticism from his fellow Democrats.
Pressed by forum moderators about that change of heart and his overall "mixed record" on abortion rights, Biden responded, "I'm not sure about the mixed record part." Later, a tearful audience member declared that the Hyde Amendment did disproportional damage to low-income women who rely on government funding for many health care services, including abortion.
Biden noted that he helped former President Barack Obama pass that administration's signature health care law which expanded women's health insurance coverage, including improved access to birth control. He also referred several times to written notes and seemed unnerved by the forum's 15-minute per candidate limit, joking, "What, do I have 10 seconds left or something?"
The other candidates avoided mentioning Biden by name, and most didn't reference his Hyde Amendment flip-flop. An exception was New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, who told the crowd, "Can we just be clear that, if you're a Democrat you're against the Hyde Amendment, period?"
The forum comes before the field gathers in Miami next week for the first Democratic presidential debates. Gillibrand suggested that the success of male candidates could keep female and minority White House hopefuls from subsequent debates since they've struggled to meet minimum, required thresholds in fundraising and polling support to secure invites.
"Pick your top five. Send them money. Make sure they make it to the debate stage," Gillibrand said of female and minority candidates. The forum drew some protesters who spent part of the morning outside it, waving black-and-white signs reading, "I am the Pro-life Generation" and "Defund Planned Parenthood." South Carolina Republican Party Chairman Drew McKissick called the Democratic candidates "a group of radicals."
"In what is many of these Democrats first visit to South Carolina, it's amazing to see that their first stop is to go pay homage to the radical pro-abortion lobby at Planned Parenthood," McKissick said in a statement.