Want to identify as pro-life? Then support authentically pro-life policies
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The highly publicized controversy over Heath Mello, the Democratic party’s candidate for Mayor in Omaha, Neb., is a teachable moment that could reshape the debate over abortion. Mello lost the election earlier this month, and his hypocrisy on this issue may have been part of the reason.

A stop in Omaha on a “unity tour” led by new Democratic Party Chair Tom Perez and independent Senator Bernie SandersBernie SandersWTO faces renewed scrutiny amid omicron threat Overnight Health Care — Presented by March of Dimes — Abortion access for 65M women at stake Hospitals in underserved communities face huge cuts in reckless 'Build Back Better' plan MORE produced distressingly mixed messages on the Democratic party’s support for women’s access to reproductive healthcare including abortion care. Mello, who identifies as pro-life, sponsored legislation aimed at overturning Roe v. Wade and voted for special restrictions on providers designed to make it harder and more expensive for women to access abortion care.


Numerous reports framed the issue as whether the party’s “big tent” can hold candidates who identify as pro-life. At first, Perez and Sanders agreed that it could, but Perez later clarified that “every candidate who runs as a Democrat” should share the “Democratic Party’s position on women’s fundamental rights.”  


I agree with Tom Perez. I also agree with women's rights champions like House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who have long maintained that people of faith should be welcome and their deep convictions respected — but that, by the same token, they should not seek to impose their beliefs on others. To me, that is what a big tent should look like.

I also want to make a modest proposal: it is time to recognize that abortion is not a “wedge issue” to be used to deepen ideological splits in the electorate. Candidates who relegate their positions on abortion to a place called “beliefs” are misguided.

The debate over reproductive health care belongs in the frame of facts, medical evidence, and public health.

As DNC member and board chair of Planned Parenthood Metro Washington Action Fund Atima Omara has written in Rewire, abortion is very much an economic issue:

“One of the top reasons women choose to have abortions is because they are unable to take on the expense of having a child. Many already have families and can’t afford to add another child. And the majority of those seeking abortions are women of color, mostly Black and Latina.”

Once we start seeing access to abortion as a measure of economic justice, we can arrive at a new way of thinking about electoral — and democratic — politics. It begins with a realistic, factual definition of what it means to be “pro-life.”  

Health regulations that advance women’s health care needs, improve health outcomes, and lower the rates of maternal mortality, maternal morbidity, and infant mortality are authentically pro-life policies.

Here are some examples:

  • Policies that ensure every woman’s access to the contraception that works best for her, without co-pays or deductibles, no matter how she gets her health insurance.

  • Full funding for family planning clinics like Planned Parenthood, which provide excellent reproductive health care for millions of women and adolescent girls each year.

  • The EACH Woman Act, which requires insurance coverage for all reproductive health services, including abortion, on the same basis as any other health care.

  • Policies that facilitate making abortion care available via telemedicine, and allow abortions to be provided by midwives, nurses, and other non-MDs -- thus placing more skilled providers in underserved communities, enabling women to access care earlier and at lower cost.

  • Enhancing the enforcement of laws like the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act to protect abortion clinics from bombings and other terror threats. 

Conversely, here are some examples of policies that result in increased rates of women dying from complications of pregnancy and childbirth: 

  • Defunding Planned Parenthood and other family planning clinics. In Texas, the maternal mortality rate doubled from 2010 to 2014, when the state enacted just such a measure.

  • Overturning Roe v. Wade. Maternal and infant mortality rates in this country plunged in the 1970’s and 1980’s after Roe was decided.  

  • Clinic shutdown laws, like the one found unconstitutional last year in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, which leave women without safe, legal access to the range of services, including annual check-ups, breast exams, contraception, STD and cancer screenings, in addition to abortion care. 

In other words, you can be pro-life without discriminating against women. You can be pro-life without shaming women who seek abortions. You can be pro-life without passing laws that increase the needless deaths of women and infants.   

I would gladly share the tent with anyone--believer and non-believer alike--who is authentically pro-life.  

Terry O’Neill, a feminist attorney and activist for social justice, is the president of the National Organization for Women.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.