I’m frustrated with Bernie Sanders, and I’m frustrated with Bernie Sanders’ staunch enthusiasts.
I understand that Sanders is wildly popular among a certain faction of the progressive left. And I understand why he is wildly popular. His message of economic justice resonates. Fighting for the little guy. Fighting for the middle class. Hell, that message resonates with me.
The problem is that Sanders’ vision of economic justice is woefully incomplete. Bernie Sanders and many of his supporters seem perfectly content to categorize reproductive rights and abortion access as a social issue—a distraction from economic justice and reforming Wall Street, which they deem the so-called real issues.
And that simply doesn’t work, because reproductive justice and economic justice are inexorably intertwined.
But not according to everyone’s favorite senator from Vermont and his most stalwart supporters. Just this week, when asked whether Jon Ossoff, the Democratic candidate who nearly pulled off a victory in a special election in Georgia’s extremely red 6th District, is a progressive, Sanders said “He’s not a progressive,” according to Dave Weigel at the Washington Post. Sanders is “endorsing Democrats based on their economic populism,” Weigel reported: “[T]hey could differ from progressives on social issues but not on the threat of the mega-rich to American politics.”
There he goes again: categorizing abortion rights as a social issue and differentiating it from his economic message.
Sanders eventually endorsed Ossoff—though, notably, did not call him a progressive. But the point is not to argue whether Ossoff is progressive. The point is that Sanders declared that Ossoff is not in the same week he decided to throw his weight behind Heath Mello, a Democrat and former state senator who sponsored or voted for myriad anti-choice bills and who is currently running for mayor of Omaha, Nebraska.
That Mello is anti-choice is irrefutable. He co-sponsored Nebraska’s 20-week abortion ban. He co-sponsored legislation that would force doctors to offer patients seeking abortion an ultrasound as part of the coerced counseling the state requires them to undergo. He voted for a bill that prohibits insurance coverage of abortion. (He still opposes abortion according to the Wall Street Journal, although he doesn’t plan to promote an anti-choice agenda moving forward.)
These are pieces of legislation being passed nationwide in a collective effort to make it more difficult for pregnant people to obtain abortion care, which in turn makes it virtually impossible for them to control their own economic destiny. (Have you seen Rewire’s Legislative Tracker? It’s chock full of regressive bills like the ones Mello favors.)
And even though none of this is even remotely progressive, it doesn’t seem to bother Sanders, who believes that Democrats shouldn’t exclude people who disagree on that one issue.
“If we are going to protect a woman’s right to choose, at the end of the day we’re going to need Democratic control over the House and the Senate, and state governments all over this nation,” he said in an interview Thursday with NPR.
“And we have got to appreciate where people come from, and do our best to fight for the pro-choice agenda. But I think you just can’t exclude people who disagree with us on one issue,” he continued.
If this is Sanders’ best, I don’t want to see his worst. But it tells me that he doesn’t view abortion rights as a core progressive value. And this isn’t new: Recall his position that Trump’s controversial comments about imprisoning women who get abortion were a distraction from “a serious discussion about the serious issues facing America.” And last month, when Joe Scarborough asked Bernie Sanders whether Democrats should be open to candidates who aren’t “rigidly pro-choice,” Sanders said they should.
Sanders’ willingness to support anti-choice candidates and dismiss Trump’s extreme comments say he doesn’t really understand the connections between abortion and poverty. As the U.S. Supreme Court said in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, “[t]he ability of women to participate equally in the economic and social life of the Nation has been facilitated by their ability to control their reproductive lives.”
The cost of contraception, insurance coverage restrictions, the lack of public funding for abortion, and the rising cost of abortion all threaten the economic security of women in this country. The connection between access to abortion and poverty could not be any more clear: Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health, a public health research group at the University of California San Francisco, conducted the Turnaway Study, which explored what happens to women who are denied abortion access. The study found that women who carry unwanted pregnancies to term are more likely to live in poverty:
Women who carried an unwanted pregnancy to term are three times more likely than women who receive an abortion to be below the poverty level two years later.
Indeed, 40 percent of the women surveyed said they had sought an abortion due to financial reasons.
Abortion rights should be a central plank in any economic justice platform. And as Sanders and Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez have embarked on their DNC-sponsored unity tour, both of them have demonstrated that they are willing to throw abortion rights under the bus by embracing Mello.
Pro-choice values should be a prerequisite for progressivism. Reproductive autonomy isn’t just a social issue or an issue about which reasonable minds can disagree. Reproductive autonomy is a human right—and last I checked, stripping a basic human right from 50 percent of the population of this country is not progressive.
Here’s the thing that really chaps my hide, though: I’d be willing to bet everything that I own that Sanders would exclude from his reformed Democratic Party any candidate who disagreed about challenging Wall Street or regulating banks. He would likely excoriate any Democratic candidate that he felt was “in bed with Wall Street,” a charge he repeatedly lobbed at Clinton during the primaries.
But vote for a bill banning insurance coverage for abortion, making it even harder for women to access necessary and sometimes life-saving care?
Meh. No big deal. We’ll still let you join the progressive revolution.
My detractors would surely point out that Sanders is pro-choice—and I believe that he is—and that Nebraska is a red state. You say it’s hard to elect Democrats in Nebraska, much less pro-choice Democrats.
Even if that were true (and it may not be because Omaha, specifically, is bluer than the rest of the state), if Sanders believed that reproductive rights were a core progressive value, he would speak as passionately about them as he does about reforming Wall Street. He would make the connection between reproductive rights and women’s economic security and include it in his larger message about economic justice.
“But Imani,” you may be thinking to yourself exasperatedly. “There are scores of establishment Democrats who don’t view access to abortion as a core progressive value.”
This is the sort of argument that prominent leftists like Lee Fang, a journalist at the Intercept, and Shaun King, an op-ed writer for the New York Daily News, have been making in response to the swift backlash to the Mello-Sanders debacle.
It’s a frequent position from Sanders supporters who seem to reject any criticism of the senator, no matter how valid. Instead of defending their own candidate and acknowledging his flaws, they deflect by pointing out that Democrats are worse.
Shaun King went so far as to say that people were lying about Mello’s record, even though Mello’s anti-choice history is public and available for anyone to see. (As Rewire noted, Planned Parenthood Voters of Nebraska never gave Mello a 100 percent rating, contrary to initial reports from other outlets.)
Bernie supporters even try to play “gotcha” by pointing out that Clinton nominated “pro-life” Tim Kaine—whose abortion record is questionable at best—and that Democrats were fine with him being VP. Setting aside the fact that I loudly criticized Clinton when she chose Kaine, as did Rewire President and Editor in Chief Jodi Jacobson, these arguments miss the mark.
The whole point is that Sanders was supposed to be better than establishment Democrats, different from them. But he’s not. Sanders is proving himself to be every bit as establishment as the Democrats he criticizes.
That’s why I’m so vociferous in my criticism of Sanders. Those of us who work in reproductive rights advocacy are well aware of Democrats’ problems when it comes to ceding abortion rights in a compromise for something “more important.”
Bernie told us he would lead a revolution that would shake up the system and shepherd the flagging Democratic Party to the Promised Land. But he’s leading a purported revolution while treating women the same as the “mainstream” Democrats he derides.
What’s revolutionary about sweeping aside reproductive rights?
Nothing. That’s what.
Ultimately, Sanders has been raging about reforming the Democratic Party, and his supporters seem to believe in his vision. But if that vision doesn’t include reproductive autonomy and access to abortion care for anyone who needs it, then it’s not a progressive party.
It’s just a Sunken Place version of the current Democratic Party.
CORRECTION: This piece has been updated to clarify the nature of one of the bills Heath Mello co-sponsored.