Why Are Democrats Fighting Each Other Over Abortion?
Sen. Bernie Sanders does not consider himself a Democrat, so it’s not surprising that his headliner role in a Democratic Party “unity tour” did not generate much unity. But it is surprising that he managed to create a rift over abortion rights, since the issue has not divided Democrats for years.
Abortion did not separate Sanders and Hillary Clinton in the 2016 primaries. Abortion was not the reason Clinton came up short against Donald Trump. Intra-party debate over reproductive health policy particulars and messages was largely resolved by 2012, when Democrats embraced an unapologetically pro-choice platform.
Yet Sanders managed to re-open old wounds when he explained why he was using the Democratic National Committee-sponsored tour to endorse Heath Mello, an Omaha mayoral candidate with an anti-abortion voting record, but not Georgia congressional candidate Jon Ossoff, who is pro-choice and fiscally moderate. As the Washington Post recounted: “’[Ossoff is] not a progressive,’ [Sanders] said. He was endorsing Democrats based on their economic populism; they could differ from progressives on social issues but not on the threat of the mega-rich to American politics.”
NARAL Pro-Choice President Ilyse Hogue responded with force: “If Democrats think the path forward following the 2016 election is to support candidates who substitute their own judgement 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.”
Much scrambling ensued. Sanders belatedly threw his support to Ossoff. The liberal netroots activist site Daily Kos withdrew its endorsement of Mello. Mello started talking like he was pro-choice. DNC Chairman Tom Perez tried to defend the party’s endorsement while touting the party’s pro-choice platform. By Friday, he was celebrating Mello’s pivot: “I fundamentally disagree with Heath Mello’s personal beliefs about women’s reproductive health. It is a promising step that Mello now shares the Democratic Party’s position on women’s fundamental rights.” Perez then went further, with an ultimatum to every Democratic official and candidate: “Every Democrat, like every American, should support a woman’s right to make her own choices about her body and her health. That is not negotiable and should not change city by city or state by state.”
On the surface, problem solved. The reproductive rights community flexed its political muscle and the rest of the Democratic Party got back in line. But there is some toothpaste that can’t easily go back in the tube.
First, Sanders revealed his priorities. He tried to characterize his endorsement as electoral realism, telling NPR, “You just can't exclude people who disagree with us on one issue” and the Washington Post, “If you are running in rural Mississippi, do you hold the same criteria as if you’re running in San Francisco?”
True enough. But Sanders doesn’t speak in terms of electoral realism when it comes to anything on his economic populist agenda, such as single-payer health care, free college and a $15 minimum wage. Anti-abortion votes didn’t disqualify Mello, but apparently Ossoff’s pledge to cut “wasteful spending” and his rejection of “Medicare for All” was, until Sanders was pressured, insufficiently progressive to merit endorsement. By putting his favored planks on a higher plane than abortion, Sanders sends a distressing signal to reproductive rights activists about what he is willing to trade away to accomplish his desired transformation of the Democratic Party.
On the other side of the coin, NARAL’s implication that the Democratic National Committee should snub all candidates who are not fully pro-choice also creates major complications. Why? Because Democrats already have people in office who oppose federal funding for abortions and late-term abortion rights, or who define themselves as personally opposed to abortion.
This faction includes several senators up for re-election next year and tenuously clinging to red state turf: Sens. Joe Manchin (W.Va.), Heidi Heitkamp (N.D.), Bob Casey (Pa.) and Joe Donnelly (Ind.). Abandoning them when Democrats are desperately trying to retake control of the Senate would be political malpractice.
While these senators hold views that pro-choice activists deem antithetical to their objectives, their ascension paradoxically occurred in concert with the Democratic Party’s deepening commitment to abortion rights. Two of the four were elected to the Senate for the first time in 2012, when the Democratic convention was as vociferous about reproductive freedom as ever, and the platform was rewritten to explicitly support federal funding of abortions.
At the time, ABC News’ Cokie Roberts sniffed, “I think this Democratic Convention was really over-the-top in terms of abortion. Every single speaker talked about abortion. … At some point, you start to alienate people.” That point was not reached. The four red state Democrats simply expressed their opposition to the platform and won their states anyway, defeating far more socially conservative Republicans. Meanwhile, national party officials didn’t go out of their way to spotlight their “pro-life” candidates, which would have muddled their national message and hampered the base turnout needed to re-elect Barack Obama.
Sometimes, voting records are more pro-choice than campaign rhetoric. It wasn’t that long ago when a self-proclaimed “pro-life” Democrat was Senate majority leader, but Harry Reid proved to be a fierce and effective legislative fighter on behalf of reproductive freedom.
Of those still in the Senate, Heitkamp and Casey have voted to protect funding for Planned Parenthood. Heitkamp helped filibuster a ban on abortions 20 weeks after conception. Casey, who, unlike the others, was in office at the beginning of Barack Obama’s first term, voted to confirm two Supreme Court justices expected to uphold Roe v. Wade. Surely the others would if given the opportunity. The same could not be said if Republicans snatched their seats.
Abortion rights activists are getting the better of this bargain. Allowing a few marginally “pro-life” Democrats inside the party tent helps maximize Democratic numbers in the Senate without diluting the national party’s message. A zero-tolerance policy would only shrink Democratic numbers in the chamber, weakening the party’s ability to protect abortion rights and resist the rest of the Republican agenda.
Many progressive Democrats say they want a “50-state strategy,” without considering that party members in some states won’t want to run on every plank in the platform. The trick is to allow individual Democrats to quietly go their own way when state terrain demands it, so as not to suggest any sacrifice of principle by party leadership. There’s no upside in loudly bragging about a Democratic big tent on abortion, and unsettling base voters in the process. Nor is there any value in naming and shaming right-leaning candidates who aren’t trying to rewrite the national party platform.
You can’t knock advocates for reproductive rights for being vigilant; if they don’t speak up when their agenda is at risk of being downgraded, who will? But as the events of the last week showed, pro-choicers have a firm upper hand in the Democratic Party. And they’re not going to lose it if a few red state Democrats give the occasional nod to their pro-life constituents.