Asking About Abortion

Asking About Abortion

While Hillary Clinton’s and Bernie Sander’s positions and voting records on abortion may be similar, Clinton has engaged more proactively with the issue, even if not always perfectly.

Hillary Clinton speaks at the UN Women event "Planet 50-50 by 2030," March 2015 (UN Women/J Carrier)

When it comes to reproductive matters this campaign season, Democrats and Republicans are operating in parallel universes. For Republican presidential candidates, Planned Parenthood (PP) is the Great Satan that sells baby parts (though Donald Trump is partly off the reservation about PP’s non-abortion activities); abortion is an abomination, and the only policy disagreement among the candidates is whether there should be exceptions for women seeking abortion as a result of rape or incest. The two Democratic candidates, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, on the other hand, staunchly support legal abortion and both have defended Planned Parenthood against the inflammatory charges made in a series of highly edited videos about its fetal donation policies and the witch hunt led by Republicans in Congress and many red states.

In the seven Democratic debates held so far, neither candidate has been asked a question about abortion, something that has frustrated pro-choice forces (and led to the hashtag #askaboutabortion). That changed recently, when Fox News, somewhat surprisingly, managed to get the two Democrats to agree to a Town Hall and both were asked direct questions on this subject.

How do Clinton’s and Sanders’s records on abortion compare? Both were asked whether they would support any limits on abortion, and both predictably gave strong pro-choice answers. Sanders replied, “That is a decision to be made by the woman, her physician and her family.” Clinton’s answer sought to put the question in context, stating her opposition to the bans on abortion after twenty weeks that are now sweeping through red-state legislatures, pointing to the fact that post-twenty-week abortions are rare (slightly more than 1 percent of all abortions), but they “sometimes arise in the most complex, difficult medical situation.” She then went on to say she would accept regulation of abortion at an (unspecified) later point in pregnancy as long as there was “an exception for the life and health of the mother.”

Hillary Clinton has received the endorsement of both Planned Parenthood and NARAL Pro-Choice America. Why did she get these endorsements, given that both candidates firmly supported abortion in the debate and that there do not appear to be any substantial policy differences between them on the issue? Both, for example, have recently called for a repeal of the Hyde amendment, which prohibits use of federal funds to pay for abortions except in very limited circumstances (something that has been a high priority for reproductive justice advocates). Both have called for a reinterpretation of the Helms amendment, a longstanding U.S. policy which prevents funding for abortions for women in developing countries, including those raped in conflict zones. Sanders’s voting record on abortion-related issues as a senator is impeccable, as was Clinton’s while she served in the Senate.

The main difference between them—and one can speculate that this is a key reason pro-choice groups have endorsed her—is that Hillary Clinton has a far more visible record of engagement with abortion and other reproductive rights issues, as well as women’s issues more generally, something she has taken pains to emphasize during this campaign. For example, as First Lady, she went to Beijing to represent the United States at the Fourth World Conference on Women (1995) and gave a resounding speech in which she declared “women’s rights are human rights”; she also spoke passionately about a range of women’s issues, such as access to education, healthcare, jobs, and credit, including the right of women “to determine freely the number and spacing of the children they bear.”

To be sure, Clinton’s pronouncements on abortion have not always been welcomed by all abortion advocates. In a 2005 speech marking the ten-year review of the Beijing Platform for Action, as she was preparing to run for re-election as New York senator, Clinton referred to abortion as a “sad, even tragic choice to many, many women,” and called for “common ground” with abortion opponents to prevent unintended pregnancy, even though she affirmed her support for Roe v. Wade. She also repeated a saying, periodically used by President Bill Clinton, that abortion should be “safe, legal, and rare,” a phrase that has been widely criticized as unrealistic by some observers, given contraceptive failure rates. Her speech surprised and discomfited many who were pro-choice. (In this campaign season, she has dropped the “rare” part of the mantra).

Sanders, by contrast, has had no comparable high point in his career with respect to abortion and reproductive rights such as Clinton’s speech in Beijing, but neither has he experienced anything resembling the disappointment felt by some Clinton supporters following the “safe, legal, and rare” speech. Reflecting on his record, however, it is hard to escape the conclusion that abortion and family planning services are simply not front-burner issues for him, given his single-minded focus on economic inequality. Reproductive-justice activists, of course, point out that for women, economic well-being is unattainable without such services. Sanders’s apparent lack of deep connection to reproductive issues was also displayed in two recent campaign gaffes. The first occurred when he referred to Clinton’s endorsement by Planned Parenthood as proof of her “establishment” connections. As numerous critics pointed out, at a time when the organization was under assault from both anti-abortion terrorists as well as Congressional witch hunts, labeling Planned Parenthood part of the “establishment” hardly made sense and displayed a certain cluelessness about reproductive politics. The second incident occurred when Sanders released an outline of his single-payer health plan and there was no mention of reproductive health issues. This startling omission led Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL, to say, quite persuasively:

We can assume women’s health services are intended to be covered, based on his past record. But in a political landscape this hostile to reproductive rights, words matter—as do their absence. If he won’t say the words now, how can we trust that he will hold the line?

Clinton’s pronouncements on abortion have certainly not always pleased all abortion-rights supporters, but she has a long record of engagement with this issue—and indeed with a whole range of issues that directly affect women in the context of their family lives as well as their work lives. The same is simply not true of Sanders, and this, presumably, is why Clinton has captured more support from the reproductive rights movement.

To be sure, not all feminists support Clinton’s candidacy. Some argue that Sanders’s economic policies will help low-income women more than Clinton’s, and these observers, like Sanders himself, are critical of her ties to Wall Street. Moreover, one can argue that Sanders’s positions on certain aspects of abortion policy are “purer” than Clinton’s: for example, at the Fox News debate, Sanders argued against any limits on when abortions might take place, while Clinton gave a more nuanced answer; similarly, with respect to the Helms amendment, Sanders said he would repeal it outright, while Clinton said she would modify it.

But what candidates promise at debates does not necessarily tell us what will actually transpire if that candidate becomes president. For those of us who care deeply about reproductive justice, especially for the most vulnerable women in our society, we need a president who is willing to expend political capital on the crisis now facing abortion in the United States. Which candidate, for example, is most likely to proactively push for expanded funding for poor women’s abortions (and contraception)? Which candidate is most likely to use the bully pulpit of the presidency to de-stigmatize abortion? Which one will spend resources to aggressively defend abortion providers against violence? Which candidate is most likely to resist otherwise attractive legislative deals but which involve throwing abortion under the proverbial bus? The realities of contemporary politics in the United States are such that, inevitably, any pro-choice president will periodically disappoint supporters. While Hillary Clinton’s and Bernie Sander’s positions and voting records on abortion may be similar, Clinton has a long record of proactively engaging with abortion and related issues, even if not always perfectly, that Sanders simply does not. That is why most of the pro-choice movement thinks she will be a better advocate at a time when reproductive rights and services are so under assault.


Carole Joffe is a professor at the Bixby Center for Global Reproductive Health at the University of California, San Francisco and the author of Dispatches from the Abortion Wars: The Costs of Fanaticism to Doctors, Patients and the Rest of Us.


Duggan | University of California Press Gardels