Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) took a firestorm of criticism over the weekend for campaigning for an Omaha mayoral candidate who supported abortion restrictions. In the slew of coverage following Sanders’ support of Democratic Nebraska lawmaker Heath Mello, media outlets and Sanders himself framed abortion access as separate from economic issues — when in reality, abortion restrictions hurt low-income people the most.
In 2009, his first year in Nebraska’s state legislature, Mello supported a bill mandating doctors offer an ultrasound before performing an abortion, which he said was a “positive first step to reducing the number of abortions in Nebraska.” Mello also sponsored the final version of a 20-week abortion ban and voted for a law banning insurance plans from covering abortion, Rewire reported. Mello’s campaign manager told The Huffington Post that he received a 100 percent rating from Planned Parenthood, but Planned Parenthood Voters of Nebraska said the statements about a 100 percent rating were misleading.
Understandably, Sanders’ support for Mello was seen as running counter to progressive values.
In response to Sanders’ support of Mello and the resulting criticism from progressives, the Atlantic ran a story with the headline “Rifts over abortion and economic populism threaten to divide Democrats.” In the article, a former Sanders campaign staffer calls the support of abortion rights an unreasonable standard:
I don’t think the senator is anointing anyone or imposing a litmus test on candidates, and I don’t think he sees it that way either. He’s always cared about a core set of economic issues, which is why people flocked to his campaign, and he wants to make sure he supports people who believe in the same things.
The New York Times published a similar piece about how the Omaha election is “pitting abortion rights activists against economic populists.” The Times piece poses this question:
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?
Last week, Sanders told NPR that in order for Democrats to get control of the House and Senate, they have to “appreciate where people come from.”
“But I think you just can’t exclude people who disagree with us on one issue,” Sanders said.
The low-income people most affected by abortion restrictions might disagree with Sanders and the media on the characterization that abortion is just “one issue” or a social or cultural issue, rather than an economic one.
Seventy-five percent of abortion patients were poor or low-income in 2014, according to the Guttmacher Institute. Due in part to barriers to contraceptive access, poor women and other people trying not to conceive are three times more likely to get pregnant than higher income people and five times more likely to give birth, according to a 2015 Brookings Institution paper. Abortion rates were also lower for the poor, because although middle-class women abort more of their pregnancies, they have less unintended pregnancies, and thus fewer abortions overall, Slate explained.
With lack of access to affordable abortion options — thanks to the Hyde Amendment, which officially prohibits federal taxpayer dollars from paying for abortions — many women have attempted to induce their own abortion. Only 17 states direct Medicaid to pay for all or most medically necessary abortions, according to the Guttmacher Institute, but the national average for an abortion in the first trimester is around $500 and as much as $2,000 for the second trimester.
The Hyde Amendment has restricted abortion access for many economically distressed groups, such as low-income Washington, D.C. residents, incarcerated people, military personnel, and Native Americans.
Alicia Hupprich, whose husband serves in the military and could not use his insurance to pay for an abortion, shared her story for NARAL Pro-Choice America. She became pregnant in 2015 and after 18 weeks, discovered her baby had fetal hydrops, which has a very high mortality rate. Hupprich and her husband had to travel very far to find a clinic that would provide an abortion.
Because of the Hyde Amendment, my husband’s military insurance would not pay anything towards our termination for fetal anomaly. Though every doctor mentioned that termination was an option in our severe situation, our doctors would not perform the procedure, and they would not point us in the direction of a safe and legal place to have it done. We had to travel over 250 miles to a clinic that could help us.
States continued to pass restrictions on abortion last year. Fourteen states passed 30 laws to make it more challenging to get an abortion in 2016. Today, 31 states have at least one restriction on abortion, including waiting periods, requiring doctors to have admitting privileges, restricting health insurance coverage for abortion, and banning abortion after 20 weeks. And these requirements have very real consequences for low-income women and women of color.
A 2016 University of Buffalo study looked at 3,999 intakes from the George Tiller Memorial Fund, a National Network of Abortion Funds-affiliated nonprofit fund, and found that about half of the women who tried to get assistance from the fund were black, which squares with data on black women facing more health care barriers than white women. Thirty-seven percent of the women already had multiple children. The average distance they traveled to get an abortion doubled from 2010 to 2015.
Low-income people face difficult decisions when they don’t have the resources to get an abortion. Somewhere between 100,000 and 240,000 women of reproductive age living in the state of Texas alone have tried to induce their abortion without any medical assistance, according to a 2015 report from the Texas Policy Evaluation Project (TxPEP), a group of researchers at the University of Texas. Most of the women surveyed said they would have gone to a clinic if they had the option.
Sanders was not the only progressive who faced blowback for his support of Mello. Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez, who has been traveling the country with Sanders on what they’re calling a “Unity Tour” to address political differences between Sanders and DNC supporters, did not attend the event but has also supported Mello.
Sanders, Perez, and others who ignore the economic realities of abortion — or pit the two as separate issues — would do better to reconsider.