The Democratic frontrunner has taken heat for his answer to a question in 2020 about how he would explain his support for late-term abortion to people who support limited abortion rights.

Adi Talwar

Mayoral candidate Andrew Yang on Arthur Avenue in the Bronx in February 2021.

Even before he was the clear frontrunner in the 2021 mayoral contest, Andrew Yang exhibited a knack for saying things that drew instant criticism, some of which he’s had to walk back, like this week’s tweet about street vendors.

What was different about the videotaped comments that rival mayoral campaigns began circulating last Friday was that they were made more than a year ago, in a different race, and involved abortion, an issue that has little to do with the mayoralty but is central to progressive politics.

Yang was pilloried over the weekend for the remarks, in which he essentially attempted a clumsy embrace of the “safe, legal and rare” position on abortion rights that was once Democratic doctrine but fell out of favor several years ago.

However, some social-media and press treatments of Yang’s remarks omitted the question he was answering and did not provide his full answer—neither of which might change the impact of his words, but which certainly provide full context. Those are below.

What no one can know is what Yang’s rivals for the mayoralty would have said if asked the exact same question on live television. In an effort to get some sense of how they would have handled that somewhat nuanced query, City Limits asked each of the eight major mayoral campaigns to provide an answer, and offered Yang a chance to clarify what he meant.

The Feb. 8, 2020 exchange

The remarks in question occurred during a Feb. 8, 2020 forum in Concord, N.H., titled “Our Rights, Our Courts” that was broadcast by MSNBC and hosted by several civic groups as well as Demand Justice Initiative, NARAL Pro-Choice America, the Center for Reproductive Rights, and All* Above All Action Fund. Along with Yang, Sen. Bernie Sanders, Sen. Michael Bennet, former Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, former Governor Deval Patrick, Tom Steyer and Sen. Elizabeth Warren appeared individually at the forum.

Midway through Yang’s appearance, MSNBC host Stephanie Ruhle asked this question:

Late term abortions: You have said you think it’s a decision between a woman and her doctor. But even people who are pro-abortion rights, some aren’t that comfortable with this idea. How do you—how are you sensitive to those people? How do you win their support while also taking the position that you do personally? Because, you’re not just Andrew Yang the businessperson, if you’re going to be president, you’re now representing millions of Americans.

Yang seemed to sense this was a tough one. He paused for a few seconds, sighed softly, and offered this answer:

I think we have to get back to the point where no one is suggesting that we be celebrating an abortion at any point, um, in the pregnancy. That there was a time in Democratic circles where we used to talk about it being something that, like, you don’t like to see but that should be within the freedoms of the woman and the mother to decide. And so to me I think there is a really important tone to set on this where you don’t just say like ‘We’re absolutist about it,’ though I have to say I am relatively absolutist on this: I think it should completely be up to the woman and her doctor and the state should not be intervening all the way through pregnancy but it’s a tragedy to me if someone decides that they don’t want to have a child and they’re on the fence and maybe at some point later—I mean, it’s a very very difficult personal decision, and it should be something that we’re very, very sensitive to. I think that celebrating children, family—like, these are universal human values and if we manage to lead on that and then say, ‘But we also stand for women’s reproductive rights,’ I believe we can bring Americans closer together on a really, really important personal issue.

Here is the exchange in question:

What the other campaigns say

City Limits on Monday emailed the top eight mayoral campaigns and asked them to respond to the question as posed to Yang, except with the final line altered to refer to representing millions of New Yorkers as mayor, not millions of Americans as president. Obviously, those answers were crafted off the air and with Yang’s apparent stumble in mind, but it is worth noting how directly campaigns responded to the specifics of Ruhle’s question. The responses are published below in order of their submission.

A spokeswoman for Kathryn Garcia wrote:

Kathryn unequivocally stands by a woman’s right to choose and believes the government has no place inserting itself in the decisions made between a woman and her doctor. We have to correct the narrative around later abortion care. These are often tragic circumstances that happen to people who were planning to carry a child to term who receive devastating news at the end of their pregnancy. Kathryn respects every New Yorkers’ right to decide for themselves, but stands firm that medical decisions are personal and private.

The Maya Wiley campaign directed City Limits to a tweet the candidate had issued on Saturday.

Scott Stringer’s campaign responded:

The right to choose is something I would never compromise on. Abortion in any stage of a pregnancy is an individual’s own decision — a decision that must be fiercely protected by government. Despite the fact that only 1 percent of abortions occur at or after 21 weeks and often happen because people didn’t have the means or financial resources to get care earlier, late-term abortions continue to be used as a fear mongering tactic by right-wing politicians to undermine abortion care and reproductive healthcare. We don’t need fear-mongering tactics — we need policies that will actually make a difference in people’s lives.

As mayor, I would double City funding for abortion care to expand the New York Abortion Access Fund, the nation’s first city-backed abortion fund that I fought to bring City funding to in 2019, and strengthen access to reproductive healthcare for all New Yorkers who need it — because protecting the right to choose also means ensuring that people have the financial ability to make that choice. I’ll do what I’ve always done — use my voice and the power of government to advance the cause of reproductive freedom and oppose those who attack it, because reproductive freedom is healthcare justice.

In a statement, Shaun Donovan said:

Health care should not be political, and neither should the right to access safe, legal abortion because abortion is health care. Most pregnant people who receive abortions later in pregnancy do so because of medical risks, or they live in a state where they lack access to abortion because of medically unnecessary barriers that make it difficult to access an abortion sooner. And I believe that each person will make the best decision for themselves, even under the most challenging and difficult circumstances. These decisions must be between the patient, their family, and their faith, if they practice. But every person should be free to make their own health care decisions and have full autonomy over their own bodies.

We should not be asking ‘How can we be more sensitive to people who are against reproductive freedom.’ But rather, how can we be more sensitive to people who are forced to make these unbelievably tough choices and how can our city and our country better support them and their families?

A spokesman for Ray McGuire emailed: “Ray believes that sexual and reproductive health care, including abortion, are essential health care for women and decisions should be made between a woman and her health care provider.”

Dianne Morales told City Limits, “Abortion, no matter where in the term, is never an easy choice for a woman. I will always protect a woman’s right to choose and support policy that makes that possible.”

Eric Adams said, “I respect the heartfelt viewpoints of all New Yorkers, but my position is clear: A woman’s right to choose is hers and hers alone. My administration will uplift and defend these rights.” 

City Limits offered Yang a chance to clarify or extend his remarks, but his campaign simply pointed to his reproductive rights platform.

The deeper context: Getting rarer

The premise of the MSNBC question appears to be correct: While there is growing support for a woman’s right to choose in general, there remains some hesitancy among most U.S. voters when it comes to an absolute right to abortion.

A national Quinnipiac Poll in 2019 found that 60 percent of the public supported a right to abortion in all or most cases—but only 28 percent backed a right to abortion in all cases. Some 35 percent believed it should be illegal in most (27 percent) or all (8 percent) cases. All in all, support for abortion rights has increased over time.

National opinion gets even more complicated when it comes to abortions later in a pregnancy—the period of gestation to which the MSNBC question referred. Asked by Quinnipiac if they “support or oppose banning abortion after a fetal heartbeat is detectable, which is usually around six weeks of pregnancy,” majorities of Democrats, men and women, blacks, whites with college degrees, and age groups said they opposed such a restriction—but Latinos, whites without a college degree and people who attend church weekly supported that type of ban.

New York State law permits abortion after fetal viability only if the life or health of the mother is in danger. In New York City, the majority of abortions occur well before any of those considerations are relevant. According to Department of Health and Mental Hygiene data, the overwhelming majority of abortions in the city during 2017—more than 88 percent of them—occurred during the first trimester of pregnancy, with only about 2 percent occurring after the 21st week. New York City saw just over 54,000 abortions that year, the bulk of them (about 30,000) provided to women in their twenties, and the majority (35,000) provided to women who were Black or Latino.

While municipal officials have little direct influence on the legal right to abortion, they can affect the practical issue of access to abortion services, through policy levers like the provision of health insurance or even zoning laws that permit or prohibit clinics. On that score, too, New York offers broader access than the rest of the country.

In 89 percent of U.S. counties housing 38 percent of women of child-bearing age, there are no abortion services, but that’s true in only 40 percent of New York State counties housing just 8 percent of reproductive-age women, according to the Guttmacher Institute. The number of clinics in the Empire State jumped 19 percent between 2014 and 2017.

Even as New York’s abortion laws have loosened and access to clinics has increased, the rate of abortions in the city has declined—falling 40 percent between 2008 and 2017, from 46.9 terminations per 1,000 females aged 15 to 44, to 28.2 per 1,000.