The controversy continues over Senator Bernie Sanders’ endorsement of an Omaha mayoral candidate with a checkered past as far as reproductive rights are concerned.
In 2009, devout Catholic Heath Mello co-sponsored an “informed consent” bill requiring doctors to inform women seeking abortions that they can have an ultrasound performed should they wish to do so. He also supported a 20-week abortion ban, restrictions on telemedicine abortion care, and a ban on insurance companies in Nebraska covering abortions.
Sanders, who boasts 100 percent ratings from both NARAL Pro Choice America and Planned Parenthood—both indicating a strongly pro choice voting record—defended his endorsement, telling NPR, “If we are going to protect a woman’s right to choose, at the end of the day we’re going to need Democratic control over the House and the Senate, and state governments all over this nation.” For his part, Mello has pledged to keep his faith out of his governing decisions regarding women’s health, and received a 100% rating from Planned Parenthood of Nebraska in 2015 for his voting record that year.
Still, many are uneasy and that’s drawn out both Hillary Clinton’s staunchest allies and some of the Vermont Senator’s most vocal critics—someone like NARAL President Ilyse Hogue (who wanted to be DNC chair) and usual suspect Sady Doyle, feminist blogger and Clinton campaign collaborator. They insist Mello cannot be trusted, and some have taken Sanders’ endorsement of his candidacy as validation of their repeated allegations that the new progressive movement sweeping the country is founded on—or at least blind to—white male sexism.
Hogue, by way of NARAL—which backed Hillary Clinton during the Democratic primary despite her neoliberal ideology—put out a press release calling the endorsement “disappointing” and “politically stupid,” asserting, “It’s not possible to have an authentic conversation about economic security for women that does not include our ability to decide when and how we have children.”
Others took their grievances to Twitter:
Troubling as Mello's views on abortion are and upsetting as his past is, Hogue, Doyle, and others may have a difficult time convincing anyone who didn't already share their views of Sanders, that their grievances are not motivated by personal bias. That is because Mello's evolution on the issue of women's health closely mirrors that of another prominent Democrat—one supported and elevated by Hillary Clinton.
In September, Clinton's VP pick, Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) told NPR, “I don't think my job as a public official is to make everybody else follow the Catholic Church's teaching, whatever their religious background or lack of a religious background.”
Kaine had raised some eyebrows given his support for the Hyde Amendment and the fact that as recently as 2011, the Senator supported outlawing contraception. He had also supported a ban on partial-birth abortions, promoting abstinence, and requiring—of course—“informed consent” for those seeking abortions as well as parental consent for minors. During his time as Virginia's Governor, Kaine was instrumental in the passage of the state's “informed consent” law, stating at the time that the measure would give “women information about a whole series of things, the health consequences, etc. and information about adoption.”
Given that in 2008, Clinton said abortions should be “safe, legal, and rare,” and in 2015, told reporters she could compromise on abortion if the mother's health were accounted for—and given that Kaine was not the first anti-abortion Democrat she elevated (in 2006, she campaigned for Bob Casey, who would later return the favor, becoming one of her surrogates in 2016)—one would have expected vocal opposition to the VP pick as it could have easily be taken as a sign of her tepid commitment on the issue of reproductive rights despite her platform.
However, Hogue and company gave deference to the Democratic nominee.
Shortly after the announcement of Kaine, NARAL put out a statement lauding Clinton's decision. The press release—by Hogue herself—went so far as to say, “Secretary Clinton's selection of Senator Kaine provides some much needed sanity to the out-of-control fire that was the Republican convention this week.” And while she did acknowledge his past, promising to stand up to him if needed, she was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.
Doyle had similar feelings:
Others were far more doting:
To progressive feminists, these seemingly inconsistent standards have proven infuriating.
“It is much harder now for people to believe any criticism of Sanders because they cried wolf about it [sexism],” my colleague, Katie Halper, tells me. “They [Hogue, Doyle, and others] wasted their credibility because their smears were so relentless, and everyone caught on.”
Correction: Halper has clarified that she was speaking generally about the feminists who accused Sanders of being bad on women’s issues during the election.
She’s right. During the primary, there was a concerted effort on the part of Clinton’s campaign to cast Sanders as the white guy candidate, blind to issues traditionally thought to be separate from class like race and gender. Since the election, the narrative has persisted despite evidence to the contrary (the Vermont Senator’s high favorability ratings among black, Latinx, and women voters) because Clinton’s most ardent supporters blame him for their candidate’s loss.
Such is the lens through which outside observers and those on the left who remember the attacks from the Clinton camp on progressives as “sexists,” “bros,” “misogynists,” etc. are bound to see these latest criticisms—and that, as Halper reminds me, is problematic.
“We should be talking about this move by Sanders,” she laments. “After all, nobody is perfect. But we can’t because now we have to have this conversation about hypocrisy.”