By Julie Asher, Catholic News Service
WASHINGTON — The COVID-19 pandemic, abortion and the Supreme Court, and race were among the top issues debated by Sen. Kamala Harris, the Democratic vice presidential nominee, and Vice President Mike Pence Oct. 7 at Kingsbury Hall on the campus of the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.
“I am pro-life. I don’t apologize for it,” Vice President Mike Pence said, adding that he and President Donald Trump would like to see Roe v. Wade overturned.
“I will always fight for a woman’s right to make a decision over her own body. It should be her decision, not that of Donald Trump or Mike Pence,” said Harris.
Pence said he does not know how Trump’s nominee to the high court, Judge Amy Coney Barrett, would vote on overturning Roe if she is confirmed and if such a case would ever reach the court.
He does hope Barrett, a Catholic, gets a fair confirmation hearing and is not subjected to “the kinds of attacks on her Christian faith that we saw before,” referring to the 2017 hearing for her current seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit.
At that time, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California, told Barrett: “The dogma lives loudly within you, and that’s a concern.” Barrett stated her Catholic beliefs “would not bear in the discharge of my duties as a judge.”
The Senate Judiciary Committee — Harris is a member — has scheduled a confirmation hearing on Barrett for Oct. 12.
Harris pushed back against Pence’s remark about fair treatment.
“Joe Biden and I are both people of faith,” she said, “and it’s insulting to suggest that we would knock anyone for their faith. And in fact Joe, if elected, will be only the second practicing Catholic as president of the United States.”
Harris, who was raised in Hinduism and Christianity, is a member of Third Baptist Church of San Francisco. As a Catholic, Biden has said he is personally opposed to abortion but cannot impose his view on others, so he supports legalized abortion.
In November 2018, Harris was accused of being anti-Catholic when she attacked federal judge nominee Brian Buescher at his Senate confirmation hearing for his membership in the Knights of Columbus. because of the organization’s opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage.
She criticized the Knights for being “an all-male society comprised primarily of Catholic men,” comments many said were akin to “a religious test” for serving in public office, which is unconstitutional.
During the debate, Pence also asked Harris if she and Biden planned to “pack the Supreme Court” by expanding the number of justices if they win the White House and the Senate in November to achieve the outcomes they want from the court on abortion and other issues.
Top Democrats, like Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-New York, have said “nothing is off the table.”
Harris answered only by saying that Trump himself is “packing” other federal courts with his judicial nominees and, she said, they don’t include any Black jurists.
“Once again you gave a non-answer, Joe Biden gave a non-answer,” Pence replied. “The American people deserve a straight answer. And if you haven’t figured it out yet, the straight answer is they are going to pack the Supreme Court if they somehow win this election.”
Among Trump’s confirmed appointees are two Supreme Court associate justices, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, 53 judges for the U.S. courts of appeals and 161 judges for the U.S. district courts. His picks include one Hispanic and several Asian Americans.
Also facing the Supreme Court — for the third time — is a challenge of the Affordable Care Act, brought by 18 Republican state attorneys general and supported by the Trump administration. the nation’s health care law. The court is expected to hear oral arguments in the case Nov. 10; if Barrett’s nomination is confirmed by the full Senate before then, she will be in place to hear the arguments.
“If you have a preexisting condition — heart disease, diabetes, breast cancer — they’re coming for you,” Harris said, referring to the Trump administration. “If you love someone who has a preexisting condition, they’re coming for you. If you are under the age of 26 on your parents’ coverage, they’re coming for you.”
Pence responded that “President Trump and I have a plan to improve health care and protect preexisting conditions for every American,” though he did not provide details.
Trump recently issued an executive order saying it is the “policy of the United States” to “ensure that Americans with preexisting conditions can obtain the insurance of their choice at affordable rates,” but his critics say it does not carry the force of law.
The health care issue looming over the debate — and about which moderator Susan Page of USA Today — asked her first question — was the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. It was illustrated by the 12 feet between the seated debaters and the panels of protective plexiglass barriers installed next to them.
“The American people have witnessed what is the greatest failure of any presidential administration in the history of our country,” Harris said, referring to how she said the Trump administration handled the pandemic.
She blamed the 210,000 deaths from the disease on the president and Pence, who heads the White House Coronavirus Task Force.
Trump “has put the health of the American people first,” said Pence, adding that Biden’s plans for creating a federal strategy for testing, contact tracing and beefing up the medical supply chain are similar to what the current administration already has done.
The former vice president’s plan “looks a little bit like plagiarism, something Joe Biden knows something about,” he added, referring to documented accounts of Biden’s plagiarism over the years.
Asked by Page about racism in this country, Harris said Trump has a pattern of racism, seen she said in his temporary ban on arrivals to this country from certain majority-Muslim countries and his reported support for white supremacists in particular at a rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. “This is who we have as the president of the United States. America, you deserve better.”
Trump was criticized for not condemning white supremacy outright when asked to by Fox News’ Chris Wallace during the Sept. 29 debate with Biden. But numerous new outlets have since shown videos of Trump denouncing white supremacy and the Ku Klux Klan.
On Oct. 1 in an interview with Fox’s Sean Hannity Trump said: “I’ve said it many times, and let me be clear again: I condemn the (Ku Klux Klan). I condemn all white supremacists. I condemn the Proud Boys. I don’t know much about the Proud Boys, almost nothing. But I condemn that.”
The Proud Boys, described as a far-right group, rallied in Portland, Oregon, Sept. 28, a day before the Fox debate.
Harris said she disagreed with violence but said the many protests against racial inequities and for police and criminal justice reform are justified.
Demonstrations have been nearly nonstop in many U.S. cities since the May 25 death of George Floyd while in police custody and after the grand jury in Louisville, Kentucky, declined Sept. 23 to indict police for the shooting death of Breonna Taylor.
“Her family deserves justice,” Harris said of Taylor. “Her life was taken unjustifiably and tragically and violently.”
Pence said says his heart breaks for such a tragic loss of life, like Breonna’s, but he trusts the grand jury’s decision in the case. He also said there’s no excuse for what happened to George Floyd, but there’s also no excuse for the rioting and looting that has happened in response.
He also said it is a “great insult” to law enforcement to say, like Biden has, law enforcement agencies have implicit racism against people of color.
“We don’t have to choose between supporting law enforcement, improving public safety and supporting our African American neighbors and all of our minorities,” Pence said. “Under President Trump’s leadership, we will always stand behind law enforcement.”