Why is “unity” at the expense of choice?

April 26, 2017

Bernie Sanders' decision to support an anti-choice Democrat reveals a deeper problem with a party that routinely gives ground on abortion rights, writes Leela Yellesetty.

BERNIE SANDERS drew fire from abortion rights supporters last week when, as part of the Democratic National Committee's "Unity Tour," the Vermont senator made a stop to campaign for Omaha mayoral candidate Heath Mello.

Mello made a name for himself as an opponent of abortion rights in the Nebraska state legislature, co-sponsoring a bill banning abortions after 20 weeks and another that would force doctors to offer patients an ultrasound before having an abortion. He also voted for a bill prohibiting insurance companies from covering abortions.

After the ultrasound bill passed the legislature, Mello told the Associated Press it was a "positive first step to reducing the number of abortions in Nebraska." For his efforts he received the endorsement of anti-choice group Nebraska Right to Life in 2010.

In a response blasting Sanders' decision to campaign for this anti-choice politician, Ilyse Hogue of NARAL Pro-Choice America wrote:

The actions today by the DNC to embrace and support a candidate for office who will strip women--one of the most critical constituencies for the party--of our basic rights and freedom is not only disappointing, it is politically stupid. Today's action make this so-called "fight back tour" look more like a throwback tour for women and our rights.

If Democrats think the path forward following the 2016 election is to support candidates who substitute their own judgment and ideology for that of their female constituents, they have learned all the wrong lessons and are bound to lose. It's not possible to have an authentic conversation about economic security for women that does not include our ability to decide when and how we have children.

Bernie Sanders speaks on the Democratic Party's "Come Together, Fight Back" tour
Bernie Sanders speaks on the Democratic Party's "Come Together, Fight Back" tour (Gage Skidmore | flickr)

Yet Sanders is standing by his decision, arguing that Mello has pledged not to attack women's right to choose as mayor--a claim which warrants skepticism, given his record--but more to the point, that progressives should be willing to embrace anti-choice Democrats in the name of building political power.

"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," Sanders told 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."

SETTING ASIDE the weird logic of electing anti-choice politicians as a strategy for protecting choice, apparently for Sanders, it really is this "one issue" that is worth overlooking. He had no problem refusing to stump for Georgia congressional candidate Jon Ossoff for being insufficiently progressive on economic issues.

Picking up on this contradiction, the New York Times describes the terms of the debate as follows:

But the ferocity of the dispute this time reveals a much deeper debate on the left: Should a commitment to economic justice be the party's central and dominant appeal, or do candidates also have to display fealty to the Democrats' cultural catechism?

This has been a familiar refrain since the 2016 primaries, where economic populism, in the form of Bernie Sanders, was counterposed to championing the rights of women and minorities, as was purportedly Hillary Clinton's platform. Yet this is a fundamentally flawed starting point for understanding this debate, as it rests on a number of false assumptions.

First and foremost, of course, is the idea that abortion is not an economic issue. As Cosmopolitan magazine--of all places--argued compellingly:

Tolerating Democratic hedging on abortion to justify appeals to the working class is also nonsensical. For women who are pregnant, abortion isn't a "social issue"; it's very much an economic one. Most women who have abortions say they chose that route either because of their economic realities or in planning for their economic futures: They can't afford a child (or, more often than not, they're already mothers who can't afford another child), or they see that their future plans would be irreparably derailed by having a baby just then. "You know what saved me from hereditary poverty?" wrote abortion rights activist Michelle Kinsey Bruns on Twitter, "Abortion. Abortion did. Real sorry if I'm caring about economic justice wrong."

This past weekend, activists around the country participated in fundraisers across the country for the National Network of Abortion Funds, which provides grants to low-income women seeking abortion. The average cost of a first-trimester abortion ranges from $300 to $1,500.

Thanks to the Hyde Amendment, which bars federal Medicaid funds from being used to pay for abortions, and numerous state laws and insurance restrictions, more than half of patients pay out of pocket for the procedure each year, according to the Guttamacher Institute.

Considering that the majority of Americans cannot afford an unexpected expense of $500, much less the expense of an unplanned pregnancy, not to mention raising a child, abortion access is a vital economic concern--to millions of women, but also in many cases their male partners and children.

ANOTHER CENTRAL fallacy of Sanders' contention is that abortion is a divisive "wedge" issue that is costing Democrats votes. In fact, as a new campaign makes clear, abortion access is "More Popular than Trump," with 70 percent of Americans agreeing that women should have access to safe, legal abortion, while only 33 percent approve of Trump.

While the anti-choice movement has eroded support for unrestricted abortion rights over the past decades, these polls show that it is hardly the political third rail it is made out to be--perhaps due to the fact that, despite growing restrictions, one in three women will have an abortion in her lifetime.

Attacking women who have abortions was an effective way for Trump to rally his right-wing base. He, too, paired this with a supposedly "economic populist" campaign that turned out to be nothing but smoke and mirrors.

In fact, the attacks on abortion rights have long been part and parcel of a ruling-class campaign to roll back not only women's rights, but working class living standards. Indeed, the Christian Right's claims about the "sanctity" of life doesn't stop it from demonizing women who give birth out of wedlock, which helped provide the rationale for Clinton's dismantling of welfare.

The right has long used scapegoating of oppressed groups--immigrants, African Americans, women, LGBT communities and others--to divert attention from and justify policies that are disastrous for the vast majority of working people. This is precisely why the left must actively combat these attacks if we have any chance of building real unity in the fight for economic justice.

Despite popular caricatures, the working class in this country doesn't consist of only white men, but has always been--and is increasingly--multiracial and majority female. There is a reason that a majority of young women voters were enthusiastic about Sanders' demands for economic justice over Clinton's candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination, though I would guess they are somewhat less enthused by his latest maneuvers.

DUE TO the backlash, some DNC members are now distancing themselves from Sanders' position--in particular, aiming their fire at his refusal to back Ossoff while ducking altogether the question of whether or not Ossoff is, in fact, "progressive" and worthy of support in the first place.

But for Democratic Party leaders, this is a very difficult critique to make without drawing attention to their own hypocrisy on the question. Far from an "economic populist" invention of Sanders, the idea of sidelining women's rights in the name of political expediency has been the longstanding practice of the Democratic Party.

Hillary Clinton, after all, once stated that she thought abortion was "a sad, even tragic choice to many, many women," and popularized the idea that abortions should be "safe, legal and rare" as a means of campaigning for Bill Clinton and courting the anti-choice vote in her run for Senate. Recently, top Democrats like House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Dick Durbin spoke out in support of Sanders' embrace of anti-choice Democrats in the name of party unity.

Rebecca Traister spelled out why the Democrats have clung to this approach for so long in an article for New York Magazine:

Women have heard this argument again and again, and we have remained the reliable base of a party that has elected and elevated to positions of greater power anti-choice Democrats including Harry Reid, Joe Biden, Tim Kaine and Bob Casey.

In fact, it's hard not to feel that it's because of the dedication of women, and particularly women of color, to the Democratic Party--where else are they going to go?--that party leaders feel freer to take them for granted and trade their fundamental rights in obsessive pursuit of the great white male. This is how Dems always imagine that they can make inroads in red states. It's third-way centrist bullshit.

THIS TIME around, however, the Democrats may not find this approach so easy. Trump's inauguration was greeted by the single largest day of protest in U.S. history under the banner of a "Women's March."

A new generation of activists is making the connections between economic and reproductive justice, in the process coming to reject the "lean-in" feminism of the likes of Hillary Clinton, which focuses on more gender representation at the top of an economic system in which working-class women (and especially women of color) suffer disproportionately.

In addition, more and more abortion rights activists are challenging the failed strategy of focusing efforts on electing nominally pro-choice politicians into office while refusing to confront the anti-choice forces that have successfully chipped away at abortion access for decades and continue to harass women outside of clinics every day.

Recent months have seen the growth of clinic defense actions across the country aimed at both demoralizing the bigots and reframing the abortion debate away from the lives of fetuses to those of women.

It's a welcome sign that groups like NARAL have taken politicians like Sanders to task, but Hogue's statement still expresses a commitment to working within the Democratic Party.

In reality, it has been the activism outside traditional political channels that has made the biggest difference. As long as most mainstream pro-choice organizations pursued a narrow strategy of uncritically backing Democratic candidates, the party was free to take their support for granted, while steadily giving up ground to the right.

If we are to be successful in turning back the anti-choice tide, we need to build a movement that is independent of a party which has proven time and again that it is not on our side--and instead put our faith in our own collective action to shift the terms of the debate and hold politicians of both parties accountable. As an activist quoted in Traister's article put it:

It is incredibly important that people within the progressive movement and Democratic Party realize that women are sick of this" stuff, said Erin Matson, a Virginia-based abortion rights activist, "and we're not going to take it anymore." (She used a more pungent word than "stuff.") "What Bernie doesn't seem to realize," she added, "is that the abortion rights movement has really bucked up and gotten some tough ovaries in the last couple of years."

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