Over the past few days, Sen. Bernie Sanders and Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez have faced criticism for endorsing anti-abortion lawmaker Heath Mello and for suggesting that Democratic legislators don't all need to hold pro-choice views in order to be embraced by their party. And it looks like the backlash from (mostly) women made Perez and Sanders backtrack on reproductive rights being negotiable. On Friday, Perez insisted that all Democratic lawmakers should support pro-choice legislation, and on Saturday, Sanders was joined by Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards at a rally in Las Vegas to discuss reproductive rights.
Last week, Perez and Sanders kicked off a unity tour for the Democratic Party. At that point, the media had widely covered Mello's anti-abortion stance, intensifying the criticism among their supporters. Perez went on to defend the idea of "candidate diversity" — the notion that Democratic candidates don't need to endorse every position officially supported by their party — and mentioned reproductive rights as one of the issues candidates wouldn't all be expected to support.
"If you demand fealty on every single issue, then it’s a challenge," he said. "The Democratic Party platform acknowledges that we're pro-choice, but there are communities, like some in Kansas, where people have a different position."
Whatever one’s personal beliefs about choice, no government should legislate them onto others. Democrats trust women. Period.— Tom Perez (@TomPerez) April 21, 2017
In an interview with NPR, Sanders responded to the criticism of his support for Mello by arguing that protecting a woman's right to choose requires a Democratic majority in Congress, which would occasionally lead him to endorse Democrats from largely-conservative with views he doesn't agree with. "We have got to appreciate where people come from, and do our best to fight for the pro-choice agenda," he said. "But I think you just can't exclude people who disagree with us on one issue."
Perez's position shifted on Friday in a new statement:
Richards responded to Perez's comments on Twitter, writing, "Thank you @TomPerez. As we have said, women's health and rights are non-negotiable." She added, "Access to #reprohealth has been an enormous driver of women's economic empowerment. We must fight for it."
On Saturday, after campaigning with Richards in Nevada, Sanders tweeted, "Women in this country will control their own bodies. Not the United States government."
NARAL President Ilyse Hogue, who previously criticized the DNC's support of Mello, also released a statement expressing approval of Perez's updated stance. "Kudos to Chair Tom Perez and the DNC for recognizing that we are a stronger party when we stand for our core values," she said. "Women across the country who are, and have always been, the heart and soul of the Party, are breathing a sigh of relief to know that the DNC has our backs, and we look forward to a day when we don’t have to fight this fight again."
Hogue wasn't the woman to take issue with Sanders and Perez over their statements and support for Mello — they were widely criticized on social media by countless Democratic women who expressed incredulity at their seeming flexibility on women's reproductive rights. Given Sanders' reluctance to support pro-choice congressional candidate Jon Ossoff for not being progressive enough, his support of Mello — and his insistence that it's sometimes necessary to compromise on positions for the greater good — comes off as particularly questionable.
It's clear that women's voices, both of public figures and private citizens, put enough pressure on Sanders and Perez to realize that women's rights won't be something they can easily bargain away for political victories.