Since we're apparently doomed to repeat 2016 until the heat death of the universe, Democrats are fighting again about Bernie Sanders and women's rights. Sanders, along with Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez, took some heat last week for making a stop on the DNC's "unity tour" to support Heath Mello – the Democratic candidate for mayor of Omaha, Nebraska, who turns out to have either sponsored or voted for a long list of anti-abortion bills during his time in the state legislature.
Mello is within striking distance of unseating the Republican incumbent mayor of Omaha, so he may have seemed to the DNC like a good poster boy for how Democrats can reclaim political power in red states. But in light of his voting record, many advocates argued that Democrats were treating women's basic reproductive freedom as an acceptable bargaining chip to try to win elections in Republican-leaning areas. Again.
They wondered why it was OK for Sanders, that self-styled champion of progressivism, to shrug off Mello's abortion record by saying, "I am 100 percent pro-choice, but not every candidate out there has my views 100 percent of the time" – while blasting Georgia Democratic congressional candidate Jon Ossoff as "not progressive" because he didn't use the words "income inequality" on his website.
They wondered when Democrats, beyond Sanders, will live up to their own 2016 platform – which, by calling for the repeal of the Hyde Amendment and the restoration of federal funding for abortion, implicitly recognized abortion as an economic justice issue for poor women in particular. They wondered if Democrats will ever stop automatically treating reproductive freedom like a mere "social issue," and start recognizing it as critical to women's economic and social equality.
A number of commentators said these concerns were not just overblown, but also impractical for a party that wants to win elections. Panelists on Morning Joe argued that Democrats have "forgotten how to win," and that they'll shrink their tent unnecessarily if they insist on ideological "purity tests" for abortion. On Meet the Press Sunday, Chuck Todd challenged Nancy Pelosi on whether it's possible to be both pro-life and a Democrat. "Of course," she said – predictably, given that she has plenty of self-identified pro-life Democratic colleagues in the House.
But the idea that the Democratic Party is somehow "excluding" pro-life Democrats if it takes a hard line against abortion restrictions misses something incredibly important. And if Democrats want to win in 2018, and make good on their commitment to protect reproductive rights, and avoid having the same circular fights over and over again, they need to learn the right lessons from this mini-debacle.
For many Americans and politicians alike, "being pro-life" is an identity. It's a moral worldview. That moral worldview often – but, crucially, not always – includes a commitment to outlawing or restricting abortion.
Believe it or not, while about 44 percent of Americans tell Gallup pollsters that they're "pro-life," only 28 percent of Americans actually want to overturn Roe v. Wade and end legal abortion. When you give people the option to say whether they're pro-choice, pro-life, both or neither, more Americans say "both" or "neither" than either "pro-choice" or "pro-life."
We get such conflicted and wide-ranging responses to abortion polling because many Americans feel morally ambivalent about abortion. But for the vast majority of Americans, that moral ambivalence doesn't translate into a desire to outlaw abortion, or to put medically unnecessary legal barriers in a woman's way to try to stop her from getting one.
According to a Vox/PerryUndem abortion poll I reported on last year, most Americans have no idea that states are proposing or passing hundreds of new anti-abortion laws every year. But when they learn about those laws – like the admitting privileges or ambulatory surgical center requirements that closed about half of all Texas abortion clinics – and what they actually do to restrict abortion, solid majorities oppose virtually all of the major abortion restrictions pollsters asked about. (The one exception was parental notification requirements.)
But for the modern pro-life movement, and for most Republicans in office, erecting these legal barriers is pretty much the whole point of being a pro-life lawmaker. Their ultimate goal is to outlaw all abortion. The intermediate goal is not to reduce abortions through better birth control access, but to make life more difficult for doctors who perform abortions, and women who seek them, in the hopes that more women who have unintended pregnancies will just decide to carry them to term – despite clear research showing that once a woman has decided to get an abortion, she very rarely changes her mind.
But not every lawmaker who calls themselves "pro-life" shares these goals, especially when it comes to Democrats. Heath Mello now insists that while his faith guides his "personal views," as mayor he "would never do anything to restrict access to reproductive health care." If Mello is true to his word, he'd be a "pro-life Democrat" like Joe Biden and Tim Kaine – one who has personal moral qualms about abortion, but still firmly believes that the government has no business telling women and doctors what to do about it.
Still, pro-choice advocates have good reason to be skeptical of Mello from a pure policy perspective. It's not clear why Mello voted for multiple abortion restrictions from 2009 to 2011 in the state legislature, but now vocally defends Planned Parenthood on the campaign trail. Sure, the same can't be said for Mello's Republican opponent – incumbent mayor Jean Stothert, who opposes abortion rights – but that doesn't mean pro-choice advocates can expect Mello to actively defend their position.
And right now, given the constant barrage of hostile state lawmaking and court battles, active defense is the minimum requirement to protect reproductive rights in America. That's why many pro-choice groups have started going on the offense, from proposing laws that make it easier to access abortion to having women tell their personal abortion stories in public to fight stigma.
As Perez has now made abundantly clear, the Democratic Party supports abortion rights and opposes unnecessary restrictions, full stop. But to prevent this kind of kerfuffle in the future, the conversation should move away from bickering about who is a "pro-life Democrat" and whether they should be excommunicated from the party. Instead, it should focus very specifically on what those "pro-life Democrats" stand for. Every pro-life politician should be able to explain, in detail, exactly which restrictions – if any – they would ever find it acceptable for the government to impose on women seeking abortions or on doctors who perform them.