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What Did Bernie Sanders Say about Abortion and Poor Countries?

Sen. Bernie Sanders

Washington Post writer Aaron Blake says that Republicans are distorting the senator’s remarks, although he concedes that Sanders differs from other Democrats in how he is talking about population control. I’m not really seeing the distortion.

To his credit, Blake quotes the whole exchange. I will too:

Questioner: Good evening. Human population growth has more than doubled in the past 50 years. The planet cannot sustain this growth. I realize this is a poisonous topic for politicians, but it’s crucial to face. Empowering women and educating everyone on the need to curb population growth seems a reasonable campaign to enact. Would you be courageous enough to discuss this issue and make it a key feature of a plan to address climate catastrophe?

SANDERS: Well, Martha, the answer is yes. And the answer has everything to do with the fact that women in the United States of America, by the way, have a right to control their own bodies and make reproductive decisions.

And the Mexico City agreement, which denies American aid to those organizations around the world that are — that allow women to have abortions or even get involved in birth control, to me is totally absurd. So I think, especially in poor countries around the world where women do not necessarily want to have large numbers of babies, and where they can have the opportunity through birth control to control the number of kids they have, it’s something I very, very strongly support.

Blake’s argument: Sanders’s critics are saying that he would like to see more abortions in poor countries as a way of curbing population growth, when he merely said that people in poor countries should have the opportunity to use “birth control.” I think the defect in this argument is that Sanders had just a) agreed that curbing population growth should be a key feature of a climate-change plan and b) clearly if allusively said that abortion access had “everything to do” with this view of his. The inferences here — that Sanders thinks that people all over the world should have access to abortion and that he thinks this state of affairs would be desirable in part for reasons of population control — do not involve large leaps.

Blake writes that “as reaction to Sanders’s response showed, abortion foes see an inherent link between population-control efforts and an uptick in abortions.” It seems to me that Sanders drew the link between population control and abortion himself. If access to abortion aids population control, as Sanders suggests, wouldn’t it have to be by increasing the number of abortions?

Blake continues, “Antiabortion activists would argue that funding organizations that provide abortions might legitimize the practice or indirectly support abortions, but that’s a different argument than alleging that Sanders supports ‘aborting poor babies for population control’” (Blake is quoting the Republican National Committee there). Again, though: Sanders favors curbing population growth, thinks that abortion has “everything to do” with it, and is particularly concerned about population growth in poor countries.

Blake’s last comment in this vein: “People may infer things from the fact that [Sanders] invoked ‘reproductive decisions’ in his answer, but he never said he thinks the United States should support abortion for population control.” Surely Blake is not disputing that when politicians who favor legal and subsidized abortion refer to women’s “right to control their own bodies and make reproductive decisions,” they are alluding to that position.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.