Bernie Sanders doesn’t fight for women’s reproductive justice

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The Women’s March earlier this year galvanized women who recognized in the election of Donald Trump a growing threat to women’s economic, social and reproductive justice. For women of color, poor women and marginalized women, of course, the Trump election was not a wake up call, but rather a glaring culmination of the racism, misogyny, inequity and injustice that we live with every day.

The organizers of the Women’s March recently held a Convention to delve more deeply into questions about how we address the growing threat and the legacy of patriarchy and structural inequity that shapes our future.

{mosads}Ironically, in answering the question of what’s next, the convention has raised even more questions about how and who defines a progressive future for women in this country.


The announcement that Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) would give remarks on opening night was met with swift and strong condemnation.  Although Bernie’s plans changed and he ultimately cancelled his appearance, the original decision to include him as speaker still raises concern.

Sanders proved he’s no champion of women when earlier this year he rejected abortion rights as a litmus test for Democratic candidates. This reasoning runs counter to Sanders’s style: abortion access is an opportunity to challenge progressives in the Democratic party to re-evaluate whether they are asking the right questions in the first place.

Sanders contends in an interview with NPR, “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. “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.”

In the back and forth over whether any man should be speaking at the convention, whether Sanders’s high profile would steal attention from Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) or other speakers, and the double-guessing of the organizers’ judgment, the real danger of Sanders’s position on letting Democratic candidates ditch abortion was lost.

The simple fact is that anti-abortion politicians support laws that shame, pressure, and punish women. Why would Sanders roll out the red carpet for candidates who refuse to respect women’s autonomy and dignity? Does he really believe that ‘you can’t just exclude people who disagree with us on one issue’? Sanders would never endorse a candidate who supported an end to collective bargaining laws, or opposed health care expansion or was a climate change denier — so why is it acceptable to support a candidate who rejects a woman’s right to decide if and when she’ll have children?  Why does he only apply the “big tent” criteria to abortion?

Throwing abortion access under the bus in support of the unproven claim that anti-abortion Democrats can help the party in red states can’t just be reduced to political expediency. There’s a bigger principle involved: meaningful accountability to a constituency that makes up the core of the Democratic Party – women of color and black women in particular.

Black women, the most consistent Democratic voters, are strong supporters of reproductive justice including abortion. Support for anti-abortion Democrats not only proliferates restrictions that fall hardest on women of color but it also marginalizes this critical constituency in the very party that claims to represent us.

Access to abortion is a fundamental linchpin of women’s autonomy and economic security in this country. The ownership of women’s bodies, women as property, forced sterilization, forced birth — all of these have had a role in our history just as slavery, colonization, and genocide have played a role.

Moving toward a more progressive party requires a confrontation, remedy, and reversal of these legacies. We can’t give candidates a pass based on personal ideology: once someone is elected their personal feelings turn into public policy that oppresses the rest of us.

Democratic control over government may help us protect the legal right to choose, but what does that even mean for poor women and women of color who lack the resources, opportunity and ability to exercise that right because of systemic barriers?


That leadership didn’t get us much in the Obama era when Democratic leaders refused to introduce legislation to repeal the Hyde Amendment until women of color organized and demanded action. The Hyde Amendment denies abortion services to women on Medicaid except in rare cases of incest, abuse or danger of death. Nearly 60 percent of Medicaid enrollees are women and roughly 67 percent of those women are of reproductive age. Over half of Medicaid recipients are people of color.

Medicaid is the largest payer of family planning services and largest financer of birth, paying for about half of new births in the U.S. annually but because of Hyde, poor women and women of color are denied access to abortion despite the legal “right to chose.”

Rather than provide women — particularly black and brown women, their most dependable base voters — with the means to carry out their reproductive decisions, Democrats in the majority were content to protect a choice that a lot of women really don’t have. They didn’t — as Sanders’s  suggests, “appreciate where people come from,” but instead stuck to an old-school doctrine lacking any clear analysis about real women’s lives.

As a senator, Sanders has supported progressive legislation including repeal of the Hyde Amendment, which makes his political position on abortion all the more disappointing. On populist economic issues, Sanders has distinguished himself from the mainstream by leading with values and pushing for far-reaching transformation that would have real impact on people’s lives.

We have seen him at his best on Wall Street reform, on Medicare for all, on protecting Social Security — it’s time for him to apply that same standard to reproductive justice for women instead of parroting the same hackneyed dogma of moderate Democrats he claims to reject.

Marcela Howell is the Executive Director of In Our Own Voice: National Black Women’s Reproductive Justice Agenda

Tags Bernie Sanders Bernie Sanders Donald Trump Reproductive rights

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