The following post originally appeared on Medium on April 24.
Last week, Senator Bernie Sanders drew criticism after a Wall Street Journal article cited his tepid response to vocally pro-choice candidate Jon Ossoff's campaign, while supporting Omaha Mayoral hopeful Heath Mello, who co-sponsored bills requiring physicians to offer medically-unnecessary, highly-politicized trans-vaginal ultrasounds before abortions. Planned Parenthood called the legislation "anti-choice" and stated that they have never endorsed Mello.
Critics saw this as another example of Sanders' hyper-focus on his own pet issues (free college, single-payer health care) and willingness to abandon those which matter most to marginalized people (abortion, reparations, mass incarceration), despite his stated dedication to them. His supporters countered by noting that Vice Presidential candidate Tim Kaine, an affirmed Christian, was also not a huge booster for abortion rights (though in a debate with Mike Pence, who is staunchly anti-choice, Kaine stated clearly that he "really feel[s] like you should live fully and with enthusiasm in the commands of your faith, but it is not the role of the public servant to mandate that for everybody else.") and explaining that economic issues are more likely to unify the left than social ones. With swiftness, they defended a Democratic platform that potentially did not include a staunchly pro-choice message.
But this, I think, is the heart of a false dichotomy that progressives have not only created, but ingested and perpetuated. Again and again and again and again. Regardless of Mello, Kaine, or any other lawmaker and their individual decisions or laws, we must shake this notion that reproductive health is somehow distinct from the economy.
We tend to think of politics in separate spheres; there are economic issues, social issues, Black issues, women's issues, LGBTQ issues, immigration issues, urban issues, rural issues, the list is endless. Some of these spheres overlap; women's issues and LGBTQ issues are often forcibly lumped together, while all different folks of color are somehow expected to have the same problems despite being completely different in everything except brown-ness. We decide that the "white working class" somehow has its own precious cadre of troubles that must be addressed. We parse issues of education from social welfare to health care, despite the intimate fibers that link them.
Sanders has adopted a more intersectional approach, in that he's a firm believer that fixing our economic woes — closing the income gap, providing health care services across the board — will fix every other issue. A rising tide and all that. And in many ways, he's not wrong; economic issues are at the heart of many, many larger problems.
Unfortunately, as it's been pointed out before, focusing solely on a few facets of the economy does little to address the systemic ways in which groups of people are kept from achieving and thriving. And similarly, failing to focus on those systems (by focusing only on "economic" and not "social" issues) all but ensures that those people remain oppressed because those systems will remain in place.
Abortion access and reproductive health care is a really, really good example of this.
Writing off abortion as a nice-to-have — i.e., saying that a candidate can get the support of the progressive left even if they're not staunchly on board with and fighting for open, affordable, and easy access to these legally-protected services — fundamentally misses one of the biggest contributors to the gender wage gap. I would argue that it is impossible to have an economic policy that's truly comprehensive or effective that does not include access to and coverage for abortion services.
This isn't a revolutionary though; Margret Sanger laid it out quite clearly in 1919:
"A woman enchained cannot choose but give a measure of bondage to her sons and daughters. No woman can call herself free who does not own and control her body. No woman can call herself free until she can choose consciously whether she will or will not be a mother."
There's also no shortage of data; a 2013 paper studying the 80s and 90s noted that birth control access can close the wage gap by as much as 30 percent. A 2016 Brookings report found that though single women of all income levels show nearly identical rates of sexual activity, "poor women not trying to conceive are . . . three times more likely to get pregnant than their higher income counterparts," leading to "higher rates of poverty, less family stability, and worse outcomes for children."
And according to the National Women's Law Center (emphasis mine),
". . . States that are hostile to abortion (have 4 or more abortion restrictions) have a worse wage gap than states that aren't hostile. In states that are not hostile to abortion women, on average, make 20 cents less for every $1 a man makes. But, in hostile states women make 23 cents less for every $1 a man makes . . .
Put simply, economic security and reproductive justice go hand in hand. Women can't have one without the other. Abortion restrictions, pay discrimination, unaffordable health care, lack of paid sick days, inaccessible childcare, unfair scheduling practices all make it harder for women to have the children they want, not have children, and parent their children they have in safe, healthy environments. Economic justice is deeply interconnected to all other forms of justice, including reproductive justice."
And yet, more than half of the states in the U.S. have some kind of restriction on abortion access. Most are based on ideological or moral beliefs, including those which require a waiting period, a second physician, or a trans-vaginal ultrasound. In most instances, restrictions are designed to reduce abortion rates or make them unaffordable or unaccessible, not to improve the health or safety of the patient.
The Guttmacher Institute reported last year that "11 states restrict coverage of abortion in private insurance plans, most often limiting coverage only to when the woman's life would be endangered if the pregnancy were carried to term," adding that "most states allow the purchase of additional abortion coverage at an additional cost."
Which underscores another major issue with separation of abortion from the broader understanding of economic issues — if the left has collectively decided that health care reform is necessarily, what does that mean for abortion services and coverage? If we achieve single-payer health care but it doesn't cover abortion services, what does that demonstrate about our commitment to the economy, to our voting population, and to our willingness to uphold the rights granted to our citizens?
Access to birth control and abortion benefits people of all genders for a variety of reasons — it reduces reliance on social services, can help break the cycle of poverty, and as a result, reduce crime-related costs for years and decades to come. When families have access to reproductive health services, they're more in control of their own mobility and can be more productive members of their community.
It is undeniable that abortion access is a cost-saving mechanism and thus, an economic necessity; limiting abortion access is simply not fiscally responsible.
No lawmaker should be required to believe any one thing; when fewer than one in five Americans believe abortion should be completely illegal (and 60 percent think it should be legal in either all or most cases), a representative government will certainly contain a few elected officials who oppose.
However, opposing something and legislating against it (or legislating to restrict it) are very, very different things. And, I believe, this is not something to compromise on because statistically it's not something we need to compromise on. The truth is that abortion access should not be up for debate, and if the left wants to be a party for everyone — and for economic justice — there is no room for waffling on this matter.
Abortion is not simply a social issue; it's not something for lawmakers to quibble over or use as a bargaining chip. It's a legally-protected right that has demonstrated economic consequences for literally everyone involved. Not every elected official needs to like it, necessarily, but to truly close the wage gap and increase equity across the board, they do have to get on board.