Even before Roe v. Wade was overturned, whether you have a right to abortion has, in most of the country, boiled down to a simple economic question: Do you have hundreds of dollars for an emergency expense? Many Americans did not, even before outright bans forced swaths of the country to contend with travel, child care, and lodging costs, too. Whether you can access abortion depends not just on where you live but on whether you have sick days, health insurance, and child care. Whether you want an abortion in the first place is an economic question, too. Economic insecurity is one of the most common reasons people seek an abortion—and how messed up is that?
Abortion is an economic issue.
On Monday, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders wrote a column for The Guardian arguing that Democrats need to talk about the economy to win in the midterms, rather than just focusing on abortion.
“In my view, while the abortion issue must remain on the front burner, it would be political malpractice for Democrats to ignore the state of the economy and allow Republican lies and distortions to go unanswered,” Sanders wrote.
I agree that talking about the economy is a good idea. But Sanders is wrong to suggest that abortion isn’t a bread-and-butter economic issue like the rest of the ones he cites: the minimum wage, health care coverage, child care. In fact, the right to choose whether to have a baby is inextricable from the rest of these economic policies. Families may choose abortion precisely because of low wages, a lack of health care coverage, or a lack of government support for child care. They may be unable to choose abortion because of those same economic constraints. Either way, abortion as a political issue is not some abstract product of the so-called culture wars. It’s as concrete as gas prices.
Doubtless, many of the women who are signing up to vote in droves from Pennsylvania to Texas understand this connection personally. But Sanders is right that more often than not, these voters are not hearing about abortion within an economic frame from their political candidates. The surging number of ads from Democrats capitalizing on the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade have all too often centered on that tired Democratic failsafe: attacking their opponents for extremism while failing to articulate a winning vision themselves. Many of these Democratic ads refer to Republican opponents as “dangerous” and “too extreme.” These messages may win over moderates in the short term. But what if Democrats could manage to combine two winning issues—abortion and the economy? Wouldn’t that be better than choosing one or the other?
Fortunately, there are platforms out there that Democrats could crib from. Reproductive justice, a framework developed in the 1990s by Black women that includes the right to have an abortion, the right to parent, and the right to raise children in safe communities, rolls winning messages about the economy, racial justice, and abortion rights into one. Young Democratic Socialists of America has adopted a platform that demands paid family leave, living wages, and Medicare for All with free abortion and gender-affirming care. If YDSA can come up with a plan that encompasses abortion and the economy, Democrats can do it too. To be fair, some have. In calling for the repeal of the Hyde Amendment—the federal ban on funding of abortion that has put it out of reach for many poor people—Democrats like Barbara Lee, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Ayanna Pressley have made explicit the way that abortion restrictions impact people of color and the poor. It “is extremely important that we recognize that the policy of the Hyde Amendment has been discriminatory against women of color and low-income women,” Barbara Lee said in a 2020 congressional hearing on the ban. Sanders himself has opposed the ban for similar reasons. If only more Democrats had joined them. The failure of Democrats to repeal Hyde, which has endured for more than 40 years, is the clearest evidence we have of the party’s inability to recognize abortion’s connection to the economy.
But some Democrats are trying to change that by situating abortion in a wider frame—one that reflects the interconnectedness of people’s lives and can energize the Democratic base. Sanders is among them, even if he still doesn’t see abortion as an economic issue.
“People everywhere need to know that Dems are the pro-human rights, pro-bodily autonomy, pro-reproductive justice party fighting to protect our fundamental rights!” Cori Bush tweeted in September when she launched a reproductive freedom tour in Missouri. “This is how we win.”
If you doubt that abortion can be used to advance a much broader agenda, look no further than the other side. Beginning in the 1970s, Republicans used the issue of abortion as a spear tip; they won over enough anti-abortion voters to advance a deeply unpopular agenda that was anti-worker, pro-corporate, and racist, all in the name of being “pro-life.” Abortion can be a spear tip for the left, too—a way to convince independents and Republicans disillusioned with the party responsible for the overturn of Roe v. Wade to vote in favor of progressive economic policies, too. Abortion rights could be an opening for Democrats to win over independents—large shares of whom already support policies like Medicare for All. But to make this work, Democrats must learn how to talk about abortion in a way that does more than just attack the other side.
This election season, I’ve been shadowing canvassers from Kansas to Vermont, listening to them talk about abortion with voters. The most obvious trend to emerge is that people across the political spectrum take this issue personally—from the Republican woman who had undergone fertility treatments and opposed the attempt to ban abortion in Kansas to the canvasser I met in Vermont who got a conservative neighbor to support the reproductive liberty amendment on the ballot there by sharing her near-death experience with an ectopic pregnancy. Behind every door is someone with their own personal experience with this issue—one that’s intertwined with other facets of their lives, their hopes, their dreams, and yes, their pocketbooks. To win over Republicans and independents—who helped deliver a landslide victory for abortion rights in Kansas—Democrats will need to come up with something more promising than talking about how much the Supreme Court sucks.
Abortion and the economy aren’t an “either/or.” To win, Democrats need to talk about the economy, and that means talking about abortion. They can—they must—do both.