With less than a month out until the midterm elections, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) wrote an op-ed in the Guardian on Monday chastising Democratic candidates for supposedly focusing too heavily on abortion since the fall of Roe v. Wade. The piece is puzzlingly headlined, “Democrats shouldn’t focus only on abortion in the midterms. That’s a mistake,” despite how, for one thing, this… simply isn’t happening, and, for another, abortion is inseparable from nearly every other ostensibly more masculine and “important” political issue you could name.
Relevant to the economic populism upon which Sanders has grounded his political career, abortion is about economic justice, racial justice, gender-based violence, and even surveillance and carcerality. Yet, Sanders’ op-ed, despite touting his “100% pro-choice voting record,” betrays his own ignorance of this.
To focus on abortion, Sanders suggests, amounts to “political malpractice for Democrats to ignore the state of the economy.”
“You can’t win elections unless you have the support of the working class of this country. But you’re not going to have that support unless you make it clear that you’re prepared to take on powerful special interests—and fight for the millions of Americans who are struggling economically,” he continued, as if reproductive rights can be divorced from class struggle. In June, Republican Congress members proudly admitted that abortion rights undercut their agenda of wielding state power to force new generations of poor, option-less workers to exploit.
Sanders takes issue with “establishment consultants” and super PACs advising candidates to focus on abortion. And while I agree that no candidate should ever only talk about abortion, obviously—and again, no candidate I’ve seen is doing that—boldly supporting abortion and the material conditions to ensure it’s accessible isn’t an “establishment” stance. But equivocating on and dismissing reproductive justice certainly is!
Of course, to Sanders’ point, Democrats who do center abortion rights could certainly work harder to contextualize it with its endless implications for economic justice; they could move away from shallow platitudes about supporting a “women’s right to choose.” But very much not to Sanders’ point, talking about abortion isn’t “ignoring the state of the economy”—abortion is the economy, and Sanders is doing Republicans’ work by pretending it isn’t.
A very simple Google search on his end would probably pull up the Turnaway Study, which has shown that being denied a wanted abortion quadrupled the odds that a new mother and her child would live below the federal poverty line. The decision to have or not have a kid is possibly the most economically consequential decision of any person’s life.
The fall of Roe and subsequent state abortion bans mean even more pregnant people—as well as the doctors who care for them—will be spied on and jailed, whether for abortion or miscarriage, it won’t matter or even be discernible anymore. Even if they’re freed or charges are dropped, as the reproductive justice legal advocacy organization If/When/How has pointed out, their criminal record for their abortion or pregnancy loss could follow them, deny them jobs, and, in at least one documented case, yield their deportation.
For a politician who proudly champions universal health care (as he should!), Sanders seems ignorant about the severe, multi-pronged consequences that emerge when abortion bans further transform the health system into an extension of the police state. As if maternal mortality rates weren’t shamefully high enough in the U.S. (exponentially more so for Black pregnant people), fear of seeking any prenatal health care or creating any state record of your pregnancy means more risk and more death. Shortly after Ohio banned abortion in June, there were several documented cases of pregnant cancer patients being forced to pause chemotherapy because they couldn’t get abortions; in addition to the famous case of the 10-year-old rape victim forced to travel from Ohio to Indiana for abortion, several other underage rape victims were forced to do the same. All of this seems worth campaigning on, to me!
Even if we lived in some alternate reality where abortion is separable from the economy, it’s pretty sexist to suggest that the state ripping 50 years of bodily rights away from pregnant-capable people and reducing them to baby-making machines is itself too trivial to take center-stage. That said, we don’t live in an alternate reality: Between poverty, expanding the police state, retraumatizing rape survivors, and blowing up the health system, abortion is about infinitely more than Sanders’ reductive language suggests. Reproductive justice—the framework created by Black women that asserts each of us should be able to parent or not parent in safe, healthy communities—comprises a foundation for economic justice and the dismantling of racial capitalism. For Sanders to misunderstand abortion in such shallow terms frankly says a lot about who he is and isn’t listening to.