Here’s a fun trick to try at home: the next time you’re talking about abortion with friends or family — because who doesn’t love talking about abortion with friends and family? – replace the word “abortion” with “appendectomy.”
When you say “appendectomies should be safe, legal and rare,” it suddenly doesn’t make as much sense, does it?
On Monday, when U.S. senator and Democratic candidate for president Bernie Sanders went to Liberty University – ground zero of the anti-abortion religious right – and twice described abortion as a “painful and difficult choice,” I wished he had played the appendectomy game first. After all, no one talks about the emotional struggle of that decision.
Pope Francis recently announced priests would be allowed to forgive the unforgivable sin of abortion, which sounds like a pretty good deal at first blush. (Offer available for one year only, some restrictions may apply.) But you wouldn’t call an appendectomy a sin, and you wouldn’t offer forgiveness to those who choose to get it.
That’s the point of the appendectomy game: It reveals the sometimes unintentional stigma even abortion rights supporters like Sanders and Hillary Clinton – who’s used the “safe, legal and rare” formulation – can attach to abortion.
Pope Francis and Bernie Sanders couldn’t have more divergent views on the subject, so it’s surprising when they use similar language. Francis calls abortion an “agonizing and painful decision”; Sanders describes it as a “painful and difficult choice.”
Of course abortion may be a painful or difficult decision for some women. So can buying a house. Or breaking up with a boyfriend. But what Sanders said implies not just that abortion is always a painful or difficult decision, but that there is something wrong with women who make that choice without difficulty, or without pain.
There’s no question Bernie Sanders is solidly pro-choice; his voting record bears that out. At Liberty, he didn’t shy from saying he disagreed with the audience on the issue. “I believe in women’s rights,” he told the assembled lions in the den, to some applause, “and the right of a woman to control her own body.”
After that, Sanders’ speech quickly moved on to the issue he really cares about: economic justice. He spoke eloquently at Liberty about injustice and immorality of a country where the top 15 earners gained as much wealth in the last two years as the bottom 130 million people currently own.
Look, Bernie Sanders isn’t obligated to spend 45 minutes speaking about abortion anywhere, let alone Liberty University. But he’d do well to acknowledge that access to abortion is an economic justice issue too. Wealthy women can get abortions, but for the poor they’re often out of reach.
As president, Sanders would surely veto any new abortion restrictions a Republican Congress would send his way. But American women need more than a veto pen; they need a full-throated advocate who doesn’t tell them their choices are “difficult” or “painful” but instead moves the needle away from restricting abortion access and toward expanding it.
Some women who become pregnant know they don’t want to be, and quickly and painlessly make the decision not to carry that pregnancy to term. The vast majority of women who get abortions don’t regret their decisions, despite right-wing rhetoric to the contrary.
Abortion rights advocates like Bernie Sanders should quit working so hard to prove they understand the anti-choice perspective. Instead they should put that effort into making abortion as unrestricted and free of stigma as an appendectomy.