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Bernie Sanders Is a Champion for Abortion Rights

Bernie Sanders’s record on abortion rights is far better than his detractors give him credit for. A Sanders presidency plus a mass movement for reproductive rights would be a powerful combination.

Bernie Sanders speaks during the 2019 South Carolina Democratic Party State Convention on June 22, 2019 in Columbia, South Carolina. (Sean Rayford / Getty Images)

The debate over abortion rights has galvanized the early primary race. Many Democratic candidates are making high-profile proposals on the issue, such as calling on Congress to codify abortion rights into federal law and to require states with a history of violating abortion rights to clear new abortion restrictions with the Justice Department.

Elizabeth Warren, for instance, said on the campaign trail that “Congress should pass new federal laws that protect access to reproductive care from right-wing ideologues in the states. Laws that will stand no matter what the Supreme Court does.”

On the face of it, this is par for the course for the party that’s long positioned itself as “pro-choice.” But historically the party has made it clear they’re not willing to protect reproductive rights for the most vulnerable, and by and large they haven’t pursued a militant strategy against today’s increasingly harsh restrictions on access. 378 abortion bills have been introduced by state legislatures this year alone. Trump’s loud anti-abortion rhetoric is emboldening the pro-life movement, and the conservative-leaning Supreme Court is raising fears that Roe v. Wade will be overturned. In this context, it’s heartening to see Democratic candidates finally putting forward bold ideas for protecting reproductive rights.

This is the backdrop to the recent critics of Bernie Sanders who claim his support for women’s reproductive rights isn’t vigorous enough. His detractors have criticized him for not being a consistent or strong enough supporter of abortion rights. They argue that he has not been centering abortion rights in his recent campaigning despite the dire state of reproductive rights for people living in states with conservative legislations; and criticize his support for pro-life Democratic candidates, like Omaha mayoral candidate Heath Mellow. He’s been accused of voting for omnibus spending bills that include keeping the Hyde Amendment (which restricts federal funding for abortion and has been in place since 1976) intact and of being generally “out of touch” when speaking about women’s issues.

But most of this overlooks one of the most important things to consider when assessing Bernie Sanders’s support for reproductive rights: his record and the history of his actions in Congress. This record is not only far stronger than his detractors admit, it’s stronger than that of many of his opponents.

No one politician will win us the rights we deserve. But if movements hold the rest of the Democratic Party to the same standard as Bernie Sanders, we’ll be in a much better position.

The Hyde Amendment

In a 1992 House floor speech Sanders criticized abortion restrictions imposed on Title X funding as an attack on low-income women; in a 1993 House floor speech he called for the passage of the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act; and in another 1993 House speech he called for the codification of abortion rights into federal law, a proposal now being supported by Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris. In 2009 Sanders helped to narrowly defeat the Hatch Amendment, which would have prohibited the federal funding of abortions in the Senate, Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee’s health care reform bill.

“Sen. Sanders has consistently voted against the Hyde Amendment when it has been subject to an up-or-down vote,” says campaign spokeswoman Arianna Jones. “At least four times.”

While it’s true that Bernie voted many times for spending bills that contained the Hyde Amendment, both as a House member and a senator, the nature of these omnibus spending bills is an undemocratic but accepted part of the legislative process that even NARAL Pro-Choice America does not use when tallying politicians’ support or opposition to the Hyde Amendment. Instead, it scores key individual votes, such as two in 2015, when Sanders voted in support of (failed) efforts to strike Hyde language from a health care bill and a human trafficking bill.

Sanders has consistently voted to repeal the Hyde Amendment when it comes to up-and-down votes. The Democrats, on the other hand, didn’t include language in the party platform supporting the repeal of Hyde until the 2016 presidential election cycle. This was largely thanks to the rising awareness and support for access to reproductive health care, among many other progressive positions, that Bernie gave unapologetic voice to.

It should also be pointed out that support among the current crop of Democratic candidates for the repeal of the Hyde Amendment has only become the standard position thanks to pressure from reproductive rights activists. Even Joe Biden, who voted against the repeal of the Hyde Amendment many times and has a long career of waffling on support for abortion rights, succumbed to criticism and reversed his stance just a few weeks ago. His statement made sure to say that he offers “no apologies” for his previous support for the Hyde Amendment, but that circumstances have changed. Yet the circumstances which allow women to access abortion have been difficult for decades. It’s either alarming or disingenuous that Joe Biden is only now aware of the enormous obstacles faced by poor women who attempt to exercise their right to an abortion.

Biden’s record, in contrast to Sanders’s, reveals the fact that the Democratic Party has not always been the best supporter of reproductive freedom. It was not politicians or the Supreme Court who gave us the right to abortion, but a mass movement fighting for women’s liberation.

Groups across the country had begun agitating for reproductive freedom long before Roe v. Wade gave us the constitutional right to an abortion before fetal viability in 1973. These efforts included everything from organizations like the Jane Collective in Chicago, who provided safe underground abortions to those in need, to individuals like Carol Downer who traveled state to state with boxes of speculums to share the revolutionary secrets of vaginal self-examination and “menstrual extraction” — a purposely abstract term for an early abortion.

Once abortion rights were legalized, the backlash against it was swift; in 1976 the Hyde Amendment was passed with 113 Democrats in support and was signed into law by Democratic president Jimmy Carter.

Republican Henry Hyde of Illinois, who drafted the amendment, was clear about his true motives, saying, “I would certainly like to prevent, if I could legally, anybody having an abortion, a rich woman, a middle-class woman, or a poor woman. Unfortunately, the only vehicle available is the Medicaid bill.” And President Carter, a liberal Democrat, vocally opposed using federal funds for abortions under Medicaid or any new national health insurance plan, commenting, “As you know there are many things in life that are not fair, that wealthy people can afford and poor people can’t.”

Medicare for All

Another important part of Bernie’s strong record of support for reproductive rights is his advocacy for a single payer health plan, or Medicare for All, which explicitly calls for federally funded abortion care. Bernie’s Medicare for All bill, introduced to the Senate in 2017, includes “comprehensive reproductive, maternity, and newborn care” within the scope of Medicare for All’s coverage.

Under Title VII, “Universal Medicare Trust Fund,” the text of Sanders’s bill references the Hyde Amendment as one of the “restrictions that shall not apply.” Specifically, “any other provision of law in effect on the date of enactment of this Act restricting the use of Federal funds for any reproductive health service shall not apply to monies in the Trust Fund” — meaning that Hyde couldn’t apply to Medicare funds.

“Senator Sanders’s health care bill ends the debate and makes clear that reproductive health care, including abortion services, is a fundamental right — not just a privilege for the wealthy,” said NARAL Pro-Choice America President Ilyse Hogue in a statement on the release of the proposed bill.

It’s vital that any plan for single-payer health care explicitly address Hyde and include coverage for abortion care. If it doesn’t, the discriminatory Hyde Amendment could apply to every person who moves off their private insurance into a public option that’s supposed to be more equitable.

A Litmus Test

It is true that Sanders has made statements against using someone’s stance on abortion rights as a litmus test for supporting other Democratic candidates. In 2017 he campaigned for Omaha, Nebraska mayoral candidate Heath Mello, who co-sponsored several bills in Nebraska’s legislature that would restrict abortion rights. In explaining his endorsement in an interview with NPR, he argued, “you just can’t exclude people who disagree with us on one issue.”

This led to Sanders being called out by NARAL and other reproductive rights advocates for spending time and resources campaigning alongside a Democrat who opposes abortion rights. This criticism is valid, and we should absolutely hold Bernie to the highest standard as an unequivocal champion of abortion rights, and demand that he withhold support for Democrats who oppose abortion rights.

But this high standard should apply to every pro-choice Democrat, including Hillary Clinton. Her vice presidential running mate Tim Kaine had a seriously questionable record on reproductive rights. While running for governor of Virginia in 2005, Kaine said he supported “appropriate and reasonable checks on the right to abortion.” He promised on the campaign trail to uphold Virginia’s existing abortion restrictions, which included a twenty-four-hour waiting period for abortions and a parental notification requirement.

However, these attempts to raise alarm bells about Bernie’s support for an anti-abortion candidate failed to tell the whole story. Without excusing his earlier record, Heath Mellow’s position on abortion rights has evolved. In 2012 he voted with Planned Parenthood on two out of three bills tracked by the group, and since then has voted with them 100 percent of the time. By 2015, the group was celebrating a “fourth straight year . . .  without enacting any new abortion restrictions in Nebraska,” and Mellow was regarded as an important ally by local reproductive rights groups.

A Grassroots Movement

It’s important to remember that the fight to protect and expand access to reproductive health care cannot be accomplished solely by supporting Bernie or any other politician. Our reliance on pro-choice political representatives and liberal nonprofits is part of what got us into this defensive position in the first place. There are now very few independent pro-abortion activist groups outside of the nonprofit world, and no organized mass movement fighting for women’s freedom the way there was in the 1960s and 70s.

To overcome the impasse the feminist left has found ourselves in, we need to challenge the liberal pro-choice framework that has leaned on “privacy” and “choice” but sacrificed access, agency, and the social support needed to participate in those choices. We need to be part of building a grassroots movement that revives the 1970s women’s liberation movement’s slogan of “free abortion on demand” and that breaks the stranglehold that reproductive rights nonprofits, political consultants, and politicians have on feminist politics.

While Bernie’s long-time support for reproductive rights is unquestionable, it will take more than a vote for him to ensure the end of the Hyde Amendment and full reproductive health care for all. This is a time when states across the country have passed more than four-hundred abortion restrictions since 2011, nearly 40 percent of all US women live in counties without an abortion provider, and at least sixteen states (Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, New York, Ohio, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and West Virginia) have introduced measures to ban abortion as early as six weeks into a pregnancy. We need a mass feminist movement now more than ever.

Only through mobilizations and grassroots struggle will we be able to make sure that Democrats don’t throw abortion coverage under the bus when advocating for a single-payer health care system, or when they support any number of “lesser-evil” choices that don’t include equal access to reproductive health care. We need that mass movement, and there is every reason to hope that Bernie Sanders will be responsive to the demands of such a movement, and will help it grow.