NEW YORK ― When Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) introduced his single-payer health care bill on Wednesday alongside Democratic Sens. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), Kamala Harris (Calif.), Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.) and Cory Booker (N.J.), it marked a big step forward for the reproductive rights movement. For the first time in history, a group of Democratic presidential hopefuls coalesced behind a piece of legislation that would cover the cost of abortions for all American women.
The bill offers universal, government-run health insurance that covers the full range of reproductive health care, including abortion, despite longstanding restrictions on the use of federal funds for abortion. Despite its inevitable failure in a GOP-controlled Senate, that’s a major win for abortion rights advocates who have fought for years to get progressive politicians to be more vocal and proactive about abortion coverage.
“It’s a great moment for the abortion rights movement and a great moment for the progressive movement writ large,” Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, told news. “We are super thrilled that Bernie, the most popular politician in the land, is using that platform to be super strong on these principles, and then you see all the cosponsors, all of those champions, flocking towards it.”
“I don’t think it signals a culture shift on abortion,” Hogue added. “I think it’s politics finally catching up to where culture has been.”
Democrats have mostly been playing defense on abortion since 2011, when Republicans in Congress and statehouses across the country began passing an unprecedented wave of restrictions that shut down dozens of clinics and severely reduced access to the procedure.
For decades, the party has picked its battles on the issue and accepted the Hyde Amendment, an appropriations bill rider that has banned the use of federal funds for abortions since 1976. Former President Barack Obama’s signature health care bill, the Affordable Care Act, left Hyde in place. But reproductive rights advocates have refused to accept Hyde as the status quo, arguing that it discriminates against poor women by denying Medicaid recipients financial access to a legal health care procedure.
Progressive momentum on the issue had built enough by 2016 that both Sanders and Hillary Clinton became the first Democratic presidential candidates to advocate for the repeal of Hyde. And now, all the biggest names in the party are signing on to a bill that unapologetically offers women abortion coverage.
“It goes without saying that comprehensive reproductive health care must be central to any health care plan,” Sanders told news. “A health care plan is not universal if it does not meet the needs of more than half the population.”
It’s a bit awkward that Sanders is leading this moment for the reproductive rights movement, after all the major pro-choice advocacy groups endorsed Clinton over him in the 2016 Democratic primary. But both Hogue and Destiny Lopez, co-director of All Above All, said they’re “thrilled” to see the darling of the progressive movement prioritizing women’s health and making good on his campaign promise to expand abortion access to low-income women.
“It’s really important for us to have a positive vision out there for what we want the world to look like, and this is that blueprint,” Lopez said.
A health care plan is not universal if it does not meet the needs of more than half the population.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.)
One possible drawback of having the abortion language in the bill is that it could scare off some moderate Democrats who might otherwise have been convinced to support single-payer health care. Abortion is often a flash point in Congress’ health care debates ― Republicans have more than once threatened to shut down the federal government over Planned Parenthood funding included in larger bills. And some Democrats may not be ready to publicly oppose the Hyde Amendment, which Republicans have successfully framed as banning “taxpayer-funded abortions.”
Polls show that the framing of the issue matters greatly: Fifty-eight percent of Americans said they oppose taxpayer funding of abortion, according to a Politico/Harvard poll from October 2016, which would indicate that they support upholding the Hyde restrictions. But a month earlier, 3 in 4 voters from 11 battleground states said in a Hart Research poll that a woman should not be denied insurance coverage of abortion because she is poor.
Reproductive rights advocates believe Democrats can turn their opposition to Hyde into a winning issue by simply changing the narrative around it.
“Access to abortion care, regardless of how much money you make, is a value that’s really important,” said Lopez. “Having a proactive agenda, when on abortion we are always on the defense, is an important symbol. This is how we build grassroots support.”