Bernie Sanders has entered the presidential race with a bang. Virtually everything that Sanders espouses—tackling economic inequality, raising the minimum wage, breaking up the big banks, instituting single-payer health care—resonates strongly with progressive liberals. But, at a time when Republicans are doing everything in their power to restrict women’s rights, Sanders’s lack of policy proposals on the issue is curious.
It’s not as if Sanders’s positions on women’s issues are problematic or not progressive. NARAL Pro-Choice America gave Senator Bernie Sanders a 100 percent rating in 2003, indicating that he holds pro-choice views. And in a 2012 Huffington Post op-ed, the Vermont senator blasted Republican efforts to roll back women's rights. “Not only are we not going to retreat on women's rights,” he wrote, “we are going to expand them. We are going forward, not backward.” Can Sanders back up those strong words with action?
The Bernie Sanders campaign website is filled with ways to address some of America’s most pressing problems and also ways to take action. After a Black Lives Matter group interrupted his speech at Netroots Nation—the largest gathering of progressives in the country—and a loosely affiliated group did the same at a speech in Seattle, Bernie Sanders released a comprehensive racial injustice platform.
Amazingly, however, there is no mention of reproductive rights on his campaign website. It's another odd lapse—that will soon be fixed but should not have been an afterthought. A spokesperson for the Bernie Sanders campaign told the Prospect that the campaign is “in the process of updating and expanding its Issues site and will soon be adding a page on the fight for women’s rights, among other very important topics.”
But Bernie Sander’s plan to fight for women’s rights can’t come soon enough. As lawmakers at the state and national level move to defund Planned Parenthood, restrict abortion rights, oppose contraception access, and block equal pay, the needs and interests of women are under assault as never before. The war on women has now reached a fever pitch, with Donald Trump making crudely explicit what other Republicans have been doing more politely for decades. Women need a president who will not only openly support women’s rights—abortion included—but will also fight to protect those rights.
Women are also a huge part of the electorate: In 2012, in fact, women were the majority of voters. And reproductive health is hardly a side issue that only some women care about. Fifty-three percent of women believe that abortion should be legal in all or most cases. According to the Guttmacher Institute, nearly 3 in 10 women will have an abortion by age 45. More than 99 percent of women between the ages of 15-44 who have ever had sexual intercourse have used at least one form of birth control.
Strong support for contraception access and abortion among women means that candidates need to fashion themselves as staunchly pro-choice to win their votes. To Michele Jawando, the Vice President of Legal Progress at the Center for American Progress, the ideal pro-choice candidate wouldn’t think of women’s rights or women’s health care as a niche issue. “At the core, what we’re talking about is strong families,” she says, as well as “women’s economic security and strong economies.”
“An ideal candidate,” says Jawando, “would be able to articulate these things, so they aren’t kind of put into kind of this frame where it’s, ‘Oh, this is just women’s health care.’”
“What has traditionally happened is that people have thought about contraception and these issues as a health care issue, but contraception and abortion allow women to invest in their education and their careers,” Jawando says of how women’s issues are directly related to the economy. “They give couples the opportunity to have children when they have the financial, emotional, and spiritual resources to care for them.”
“Historically, Bernie Sanders has had a great record,” Jawando says. So what can Bernie Sanders, as well as Hillary Clinton and Martin O’Malley do to ensure the protection of women’s rights? “Without question, pushing the debate on how we need to expand Medicaid,” says Jawando.
One provision of the Affordable Care Act expands Medicaid to ensure that millions of low-income families would be eligible for health insurance, but 26 states—all with Republican governors—refused the expansion. This refusal has left millions without insurance and scores of low-income women without access to contraception, breast cancer screenings, and much more. Sanders has made clear his support for expanding such access through single-payer health care. But his failure to frame this as an issue of women’s reproductive health is troubling.
Jawando also mentions how for-profit corporations are now eschewing contraception for their employees, thanks to Supreme Court’s ruling in the Hobby Lobby v. Burwell case and funding cuts to the Title X Family Planning program. “There is a constant dissonance between what actually helps families, and what’s just a good sound bite. I think that’s unfortunate and we need to elevate the debate.”
In the reproductive rights arena, Hillary Clinton has the clear advantage; Emily’s List—the group that endorses pro-choice candidates—gave Clinton the nod early in her campaign and the prospect of a woman president who presumably will intrinsically understand women’s issues is a good selling point.
For Sanders, stepping out of his comfort zone has been sticky, but has produced great results. Once inattentive to racial inequality , preferring to lump the issue with economic ones, Sanders and his new stance have won praise from Black Lives Matter protesters. If progressives push him on women’s rights, the same thing might happen.