Editorial Politics

Setting the Record Straight: What the Elevation of Heath Mello Tells Us About the Democratic Party

Jodi Jacobson

We've come to treat lies and misinformation about abortion as somehow different than lies and misinformation about climate change. They are no different.

A furor erupted last week when Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison, deputy chair of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), joined Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Nebraska Democratic Party chair Jane Kleeb at a large rally in Omaha, Nebraska, to publicly endorse Heath Mello, the Democratic candidate for mayor. Mayoral races don’t normally draw national figures, but Kleeb, a highly successful organizer, leader in the fight to kill the Keystone pipeline, and influential member of the Democratic Party, sought endorsements from Sanders and the DNC and held the rally to showcase the power of progressives in so-called red states.

Mayoral candidates also don’t normally draw national headlines, but Mello did, because the endorsements also shed a glaring light on his past anti-choice record. Although he is running as a Democrat and lauded for progressive positions on numerous issues, as a Nebraska state senator, Mello co-sponsored and helped pass some of the worst state-level restrictions on abortion care in the country.

Those laws remain in place, and Mello has neither denounced them nor made clear whether he now understands why they are so damaging. His elevation to a national stage has opened old and new wounds, once again raising the issue of whether the Democratic Party, and progressives writ large, truly understand the intrinsic connections between the most fundamental rights of women and the ostensible goals of a progressive agenda. It underscores the persistent but erroneous idea that abortion rights are just a “cultural issue” that can be subject to “beliefs,” rather than facts, medical evidence, and public health goals. It promotes the notion that you can restrict women’s rights and still be a progressive. It has also posed the question of whether the future leaders of the party will not only protect, but promote women’s health and rights by taking responsibility for repealing existing barriers, some of which they themselves have put in place. The initial answer to the last question seems to be no.

That Mello was put on the national stage as a paragon of progressive values came as a sucker punch to reproductive rights advocates who have been fighting incessant battles against Republicans, yes, but also against Democrats, the latter of whom have too often proven complicit in restricting access to essential health care. The attention given by party leaders and Sanders to Mello contrasted starkly with their seeming failure, along with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), to even notice—much less meaningfully invest in—critical congressional races being run by pro-choice Democrats in Georgia, Kansas, and Montana. Sanders, for example, initially made dismissive comments about Jon Ossoff, a pro-choice Democrat running to fill the seat vacated in Georgia by Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, which was perplexing to say the least.

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Criticisms of the party’s embrace of Mello by leaders such as NARAL Pro-Choice America President Ilyse Hogue led to a cycle of mansplaining (“You’re blocking our agenda with your wedge issues!”), misinformation (“Mello’s record isn’t that bad!”), and defensiveness (“But Bernie is pro-choice!”). And Democratic Party leaders demonstrated that after all this time, they can’t seem to grasp that there is no justice without reproductive justice; that women can’t enjoy full citizenship if they can’t decide whether, when, and with whom to have children; that access to abortion is a public health imperative; and that childbearing and childrearing are fundamentally economic activities no matter what tent you are pitching or where you pitch it.

When women’s rights leaders protested, party leaders very quickly trotted out the most common Democratic Party shibboleths—with the least basis in fact—to quell the firestorm. Women were schooled about what it takes to win races in “red” states, never mind that time after time, poll after poll, ballot initiative after ballot initiative shows that no matter how they self-identify, voters in states controlled by right-wing legislatures do not desire to rob people of their fundamental rights, routinely voting against abortion restrictions when given the chance (take Colorado, Mississippi, or South Dakota for example). Never mind, either, that throughout the country, women are literally running the resistance and fueling the resurgence of grassroots electoral power at the state level.

The first people to effectively tell women to sit down were Sanders and DNC chair Tom Perez—both of whom should have known better and who later reversed course to publicly support reproductive rights, because, let’s face it, a great deal of PAC money and organizing power is involved. But some of the loudest pushback to women’s rights advocates came from other self-proclaimed progressives, such as D.D. Guttenplan at the Nation, who, though he is not known as an abortion rights expert, decided that we were all complaining too much and that, by the way, we had our facts wrong.

We do not.

Here are the facts.

Mello’s record on abortion rights is very bad. Full stop. As a state senator in 2010, for example, Mello co-sponsored a 20-week abortion ban, one of the first in the nation and the first to rely on the false claims of “fetal pain” cooked up by anti-choice groups to shop this kind of model legislation. In 2011, Mello voted for LB 22, which prohibited insurance coverage of abortion in the state by using a false claim that federal funds in state exchanges were being used to fund abortion. Before passage of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), the majority of women with private insurance were covered for abortion care. Thanks in large part to the machinations of former Democratic Nebraska Sen. Ben Nelson (for whom Mello previously worked) and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, millions of women lost insurance coverage of abortion care as the states used Nelson’s amendment to justify eliminating it. Mello helped finish his one-time boss’ work.

In 2011, Mello also voted to effectively kill telemedicine abortion in Nebraska via LB 521, which required the physical presence of a doctor for any abortion. This is another tool in the arsenal of the anti-choice playbook to make abortion so difficult to access that patients are faced with forced pregnancy. Such legislation raises the costs of abortion (by requiring office visits and the presence of a doctor even when not necessary and even for a medication abortion), makes it harder for rural women to access abortion (because they have to travel to clinics, of which there are only three in that very large state), and, ironically, results in many abortions taking place later than they might otherwise. This would seem to defeat the purpose of the bills—but then, the purpose really is to shame women.

Those looking to put a kinder and gentler face on Mello’s anti-choice history, though, have largely focused on the role Mello ostensibly played in softening a bill that includes complicated and unclear language about ultrasounds. But this story is questionable at best. First of all, you can’t take one piece out of context in a state where abortion is highly restricted, because the anti-choice strategy is to pass so many restrictions that abortion care is tied in knots and then regulated out of existence. These things are quite purposefully intertwined, and Mello was party to virtually all of these restrictions.

Second, the bills are just plain bad in and of themselves. In a country throughout which patients and doctors are being targeted by lawmakers and states are seeking to criminalize abortion, vague, sweeping language about medical procedures means that any single unintended “mistake” might lead to prosecution.

There are two relevant bills in question. One is LB 675, which Mello co-sponsored and which effectively requires doctors to offer patients seeking an abortion an ultrasound prior to the procedure, to “perform the ultrasound at least one hour prior to the abortion,” and “simultaneously display the ultrasound image to the woman so that she may view it if she chooses.” It also requires a list be given to women of places to obtain free ultrasounds—otherwise known as crisis pregnancy centers, which are long known to lie to women about the consequences of abortion and even about their gestational stage of pregnancy.

The point of this bill is, in keeping with another tactic in the anti-choice model legislation game plan: to use the notion of “informed consent” to legislate the doctor-patient relationship, part of a broader strategy to kill evidence-based care and provide ideologically driven “services” in its place. In other words, an anti-choice legislature dictates in detail medical practice to doctors under the “guise” of protecting women, and in a bill laden with false assertions about abortion care. In turn, this falsely suggests hidden dangers in one of the safest of all procedures carried out in this country, further promotes abortion stigma, and raises the costs of abortion care. This not only is not done, but would not be tolerated in any other area of care. The public health and medical communities know this and have routinely lobbied vociferously against these bills using actual medical evidence, to no avail.

The other bill in question is LB 594, for which Mello voted, and which effectively amends LB 675. The second bill is pointed out by Mello’s supporters as supposedly showing how Mello acted to “soften” legislation, but in reading this bill it is unclear how you can draw that conclusion because it further dictates how doctors and patients must interact in numerous complicated and time-consuming ways that have nothing to do with care, and everything to do with complicating it and making providers ever more subject to suspicion and accusation. Like many of these bills, LB 594 is at once vague and overly broad, and uses sweeping language then interpreted by anti-choice legislators, district attorneys, and state attorneys general to criminalize abortion, pregnancy, miscarriage, women, and providers.

The second bill’s preamble suggests a definition of self-induced abortion that—in conjunction with feticide laws of the kind passed in Nebraska and many other states—sets up the possibility of prosecutions for abortion and obstetric emergencies. The bill defines pregnancy in a manner not consistent with the actual medical definition and asserts that current medical standards of care around abortion are not adequate—an assertion that remains unsupported anywhere—and that it is up to the legislature to clarify that standard of care. It provides at once detailed, contradictory, and confusing language about informed consent and informed consent practices, suggesting there are gaps in medical best practice that have never been proven. And it also states that the legislature “expressly deplore the destruction of unborn life” and creates vague and overly broad conditions for illegal termination of pregnancy. It’s difficult to see this bill and decide it softens anything. To the contrary, it’s a mess, just makes things worse, and again can’t be taken on its own to prove anything.

In running for mayor, Mello has said he would “never do anything to restrict reproductive health care.” There are two problems with that statement. One is he already has done a lot to restrict access to reproductive health care but again has not repudiated it. It would be harder to do much more than already has been done to restrict abortion in Nebraska, though the anti-choice movement shows no signs of giving up.  Mello participated in the substantial and irreparable damage done to abortion rights in his state, and those votes can’t just be excused by votes for child care, Medicaid expansion, education, or other progressive goals. The reason is simple, and it bears repeating: Access to abortion is a public health imperative. It is a medical and individual health imperative. It is a fundamental human right, without which women can’t control their futures or fully participate in societies and communities. Denial of abortion care makes women poorer and less able to achieve their own goals, and makes whole families suffer. Access to abortion care improves maternal survival and health and increases infant and child survival. Voting for one set of things does not excuse ideologically-driven and harmful action in the other. It would be helpful going forward if Mello acknowledged this.

The second is that as mayor, he will need to actively promote access to abortion care by enforcing the FACE Act, ensuring clinics are respected, and taking other steps. One hopes he will actively do so.

This is not about “beliefs,” it’s about decades of medical and public health evidence and basic, profound questions of human rights. We’ve all become conditioned to treat abortion as something subject to religious dictates at the social level in ways that are not at all dissimilar and only matters of degree different from religious dictates used elsewhere to promote female genital mutilation, child marriage, and the sequestering of women from society. We’ve come to treat lies and misinformation about abortion as somehow different than lies and misinformation about climate change. They are no different. They are lies and they have consequences, but still the anti-choice movement uses them and we excuse it as “conscience” and “belief.”

It is true that Mello is running against a Republican who is as bad on abortion rights and far worse on many other issues of concern. It is true that some in Omaha defend Mello based on his broader record and that they are the ones who vote for their representatives. I want to make clear that I do not vote in Omaha and am not suggesting he be defeated. Repeat: I am not suggesting he be defeated.

But that does not obviate broader questions. Because it is simultaneously true that others in the state, and throughout the country, are in fact deeply and legitimately concerned about the failure of the party and various leaders to grapple openly and honestly with the implications of sidelining fundamental rights going forward. It is also true that Mello has not, at least publicly, actually come to grips with what his past record suggests and has not, at least publicly, disavowed his actions. Finally, it’s not enough to say that as mayor he won’t do any more bad things, because in a state in which there are, again, three clinics and one-third of the population lives in rural areas, his past actions continue to affect people who need care.

This is not an abstract issue. Under the ACA and with the permission of Democratic leaders we have seen the greatest erosion in abortion rights in this country in over two decades, and that is not just a problem of Republicans. What is at stake here is the future of the party. What is at stake is whether the still largely white, largely male-dominated Democratic Party actually means to promote and protect women’s rights from here on after. What is at stake is what it actually means to be “pro-life,” if you are willing to pass legislation that stigmatizes, criminalizes, and makes inaccessible essential reproductive health care and harms women and families.

The question, now, is not only whether Mello understands the damage he has done and is willing to advocate to undo it, but whether the DNC, DCCC, Sanders, and others understand it. The question is what Mello’s supporters will do to push him on these issues as he seeks higher office in the state, because he will. The question is whether the party and leaders like Sanders will dedicate themselves to addressing the harm done to women’s rights by being complicit with the corporate and religiously fundamentalist Republican Party at the national and at the state level under the guise of a so-called big tent that inevitably undermines women’s health and rights, gives cover to the Catholic Bishops and white males, and leaves more than half the population out in the cold.

It can no longer be OK to substitute anti-choice lies and “religious” beliefs for the fundamental rights and health of women. Moreover, anti-choice positions are not necessary to win elections, though that is the least of the issues right now. If the situation with Heath Mello shows anything, it is that this is a grossly overdue and long-avoided conversation that has only just begun.

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* Laura Huss, Ally Boguhn, Jess Pieklo, and Imani Gandy provided assistance for this article.

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