Why Is Bernie Sanders' Overwhelmingly Pro-Choice Record Being Attacked?

Last week, Senator Bernie Sanders watched as Hillary Clinton won endorsements from two major Washington D.C. political organizations: Planned Parenthood Federation of America and the Human Rights Campaign. The Sanders campaign sent out press releases saying the senator wasn't all that surprised because the two organizations are part of the political "establishment." 

The idea that the two progressive groups are part of the establishment sent members of the progressive political community into their respective corners for battle. Clinton supporters lit up online forums and social media, offended that the work being done for women's reproductive rights and LGBT equality would earn such a pejorative label. Sanders supporters fought back, saying multimillion-dollar organizations in Washington have become part of the political establishment.

Sanders addressed this in the CNN Democratic Town Hall Monday night, where he apologized for poorly phrasing what he meant and also touted his pro-choice record:

"So if you have 100 percent Planned Parenthood voting record, 100 percent pro-choice voting record, there are people who are asking, why is the leadership not either supporting Bernie Sanders or why are they, you know, opposing him? And my point is that I will fight—these are great organizations. I met with Planned Parenthood. They do a fantastic job not only in defending women's rights in general, but talking about sexuality in America. They are a fantastic organization. Count me in as somebody who strongly supports them. So this was simply a question of endorsement policy, not whether or not I strongly support these organizations."

The concern here seems to be around the idea of the "establishment."

Just 10 years ago, Democrats were a much more conservative party. The people may not have been, but elected officials cowered in fear of being seen as "baby killers" or supporting "those gays," as the right-wing would say. PPFA and the HRC fought on the front lines during the early 2000s, when states were banning choice and same-sex marriage. Endorsements from these organizations were sometimes kept secret for fear that candidates in conservative states could have it used against them.

I personally worked for a candidate who had a gay son and LGBT staff, and found ways to finagle her language so she wasn't lying yet she also wasn't out of the closet about her support for the LGBT community. I stood in fundraisers with major gay and lesbian donors as she told them, "I was taught that marriage was between a man and a woman." People would dare to ask if that was what she believed now and she refused to admit out loud that it was not what she believed. It was a terrible time in politics.

Today, the same-sex marriage battle has been won. On Monday came the news that a Texas grand jury found no wrongdoing on the part of Planned Parenthood but will be indicting the two individuals who filmed the phony videos. This is a huge step forward from where we were 10 years ago.

But times have also changed when it comes to the way the Democratic Party and Washington D.C. issue-based organizations function. PPFA and the HRC have become such huge, influential organizations that they are indeed now part of the political establishment. However, that's not necessarily a bad thing because it has pulled the Democratic Party to a more socially conscious place than it once was. The left should want these groups in the establishment because it makes the values they fight for more and more important to have if you intend to run as a Democrat. We need more liberal groups like Democracy for America and MoveOn to become part of the establishment in order to continue pulling the party toward more progressive causes and candidates.

But with great power also comes great criticism. Cecile Richards’ daughter is on the ground in Iowa working as a staffer on the Clinton campaign. Planned Parenthood also donated over $9,000 to Clinton’s campaigns in 2000 and 2008. That my not seem like a lot, but these dollars came in before Citizens United opened the floodgates on political donations. Many of the large Planned Parenthood donors have also been Clinton campaign donors. Planned Parenthood is a member of the Clinton Global Initiative. Sanders was never going to get the Planned Parenthood endorsement even with his 100% voting record with the organization. Therein lies Sanders' beef with the process. If the members of the organizations were to have voted on who to endorse, Sanders would likely have held the decision in greater esteem.

What is being missed in all of this is that Sanders is one of the few elected male allies who doesn't just pay lip service to women, but has actually advocated for reproductive freedom. Sanders doesn't just have a 100% voting record with Planned Parenthood, he has it with NARAL-ProChoice America as well. In a 2012 op-ed in the Huffington Post, Sanders wrote,

“We are not returning to the days of back-room abortions, when countless women died or were maimed. The decision about abortion must remain a decision for the woman, her family and physician to make, not the government.”

NARAL and Planned Parenthood have said that an ally and a friend is different than what they call a "champion." Clinton has indeed made protecting choice part of her identity and her campaigns since the very beginning.

Sanders, by contrast has made economic issues the central part of his campaign since the beginning. This may seem to be a large wedge the political groups are attempting to create, but the one thing both of these organizations have talked about for years is that the number-one reason women give for having an abortion is that they can't afford to raise a child. You can't talk about the impact economic stability plays in reproductive freedom while simultanously drawing a distinction between being a champion for choice and a champion for economic fairness. The issues are far too intricately entwined to be separated.

What this whole conversation has done is attempt to divide tried and true progressives and feminist groups. It isn't helping to move progressive causes forward when we are divided over gender or which single issue is more important. The stakes are too high in these elections. The next thing you know, an environmental organization could dive into the mix and say that choice and marriage don't matter when you can't breathe and you're under water. Even President Obama has said that he's now a "single-issue voter on guns."

Being a progressive "champion" isn't about a single issue, and it never should be. 

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