Former West Virginia congressional candidate and Democratic presidential hopeful Richard Ojeda, facing questions from reproductive rights advocates about his position on abortion, has fired off a 500-word statement framing the issue in terms of class and racial politics.
“There has been some confusion about where I stand on the issue of abortion access so let me clear this up. I wholeheartedly support a woman’s right to make her own decisions about her body. Full stop,” he said. As president, Ojeda said, he would oppose any 20-week abortion ban or other such restrictions.
Ojeda also committed to nominating only judges who were similarly invested in protecting women’s rights to make their own reproductive decisions, and vowed to oppose the Hyde Amendment, which bars federal funds from being used for abortion. Globally, he committed to reinterpreting the Helms Amendment, which, as currently implemented, bars U.S. funds from being used to support abortion services in foreign countries, even in cases of rape or when the life of the pregnant woman is in jeopardy.
The full-throated endorsement of reproductive rights comes in response to criticism of Ojeda’s past description of his politics as “pro-life.” Yet Ojeda said he is not willing to cede the term to abortion rights opponents.
“I’m also calling bullshit on the idea that opposing abortion makes you pro-life,” he said in a statement provided to The Intercept. “If you just want to keep working class women from making their own decisions, you might be pro-birth but you’re not pro-life. I have always considered myself pro-life because I want to reduce the number of abortions by making birth control accessible, by quadrupling the funding for Planned Parenthood, and by making sure that those who would start families have jobs and childcare so that they can afford to raise their kids.”
Ojeda, a state senator from West Virginia and a retired major in the U.S. Army, lost a congressional race in November in a district that President Donald Trump carried in 2016 by 49 points. After the election, he announced that he’d be running for president.
His statement framed the issue of choice forcefully in terms of class and race. “Throughout history, rich women have always had access to the care that they want or need and they always will. It’s only poor and working class women who have died in back alleys or been forced to use crude instruments like coat hangers,” he said.
That Ojeda is challenging the Helms Amendment this early in the presidential campaign is a signal of just how quickly reproductive freedom is advancing within the Democratic Party. In 2016, it wasn’t until February that both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders made a pledge to reinterpret Helms, and that was only after pressure from advocacy groups and repeated pestering by reporters.
The Helms Amendment, named for former Sen. Jesse Helms, a prominent white nationalist, says that U.S. foreign aid cannot be used for abortion “as a method of family planning.” That language has been interpreted — wrongly, it’s easy to argue — by every White House since 1973, including the Obama administration, as a strict ban on all abortion, even in the cases of rape, incest, or a threat to the pregnant woman’s life. “A woman raped by the Taliban or Boko Haram should not be forced by the callousness of our government to bear her rapist’s child,” he said.
The Hyde Amendment, too, has been a mainstay of federal policy and was incorporated into the Affordable Care Act. Clinton vowed to oppose it and Sanders, in his most recent “Medicare for All” legislation, would overturn it.
If even the lawmaker from West Virginia is willing to make the pledge on Helms and Hyde, Ojeda’s position lays down a marker, making it difficult for other Democratic candidates to run on a more restrictive agenda.
For Ojeda, arguments about the sanctity of unborn life are hypocritical coming from wealthy Republican politicians who publicly oppose abortion in general, but are supportive of it when they accidentally impregnate their girlfriends. He singled out former Pennsylvania Rep. Tim Murphy, who resigned his seat amid such a controversy, as well as Rep. Scott DesJarlais, R-Tenn.
“They all run around saying how they’re against abortion until their mistress gets pregnant,” he said. “Right Tim Murphy? Right Congressman Desjarlais? Right Mr. President?” (Trump has called avoiding venereal disease his “personal Vietnam,” but there have been no allegations that he pressured anyone to have an abortion.)
The case of DesJarlais, a medical doctor, however, is extraordinary: He impregnated one of his patients and pressured her to have an abortion. For that ethical breach, he was reprimanded by the state medical board, but his heavily evangelical voting base has continued to return him to Congress.
Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, applauded the positioning by Ojeda. “Bingo. Major Ojeda’s unequivocal support for abortion rights demonstrates that he not only thoroughly understands of the cruelty and danger inflicted on women by current anti-choice policy makers but that he has a fundamental respect for the dignity of all women to make their own decisions and be able to control their own lives regardless of the conditions of their lives,” she said in a statement to The Intercept. “Major Ojeda also calls out the inherent hypocrisy of the current anti-choice movement and their agenda to control women, not to support families. This perspective not only places him well within the mainstream of Americans who feel the same, but it also demonstrates the kind of commitment and leadership we hope to see in every candidate for office in 2020 from city council to president.”
Erica Sackin, a spokesperson for Planned Parenthood, said her organization was “pleased to see candidates from across the country understand and fully embrace sexual and reproductive health care.”
Here is Ojeda’s full statement:
There has been some confusion about where I stand on the issue of abortion access so let me clear this up. I wholeheartedly support a woman’s right to make her own decisions about her body. Full stop. Throughout history, rich women have always had access to the care that they want or need and they always will. It’s only poor and working class women who have died in back alleys or been forced to use crude instruments like coat hangers. These laws that are passed only control the bodies and medical decisions of poor and working-class women because those in power have not trusted working class women to make their own decisions. Especially since working class women are disproportionately black and brown. Well guess what, they might not trust women, but I do.
I will stand against non-scientifically based 20 week bans and other arbitrary barriers like forced ultrasounds. I will stand against allowing the Hyde Amendment to keep poor women from having access. I will never support a judicial nominee who would stand in the way of access for all women regardless of class or race. And as President, I will immediately reinterpret the Helms amendment to end the inhumane exclusion of rape, incest, and the life of the mother. A woman raped by the Taliban or Boko Haram should not be forced by the callousness of our government to bare her rapist’s child.
But I’m also calling bullshit on the idea that opposing abortion makes you pro-life. If you just want to keep working class women from making their own decisions, you might be pro-birth but you’re not pro-life. I have always considered myself pro-life because I want to reduce the number of abortions by making birth control accessible, by quadrupling the funding for Planned Parenthood, and by making sure that those who would start families have jobs and childcare so that they can afford to raise their kids.
It was not easy or popular to stand with working class women and with Planned Parenthood in West Virginia. But I did it any way. When an anti-working class abortion amendment was put on the ballot, I didn’t run and hide and try to keep quiet. I gave a floor speech about how I almost lost my own wife during childbirth. And how I would never, never take away a family’s ability to make their own decisions. I did it because it was right and because all of these rich men in the Republican Party are hypocrites. They all run around saying how they’re against abortion until their mistress gets pregnant. Right Tim Murphy? Right Congressman Desjarlais? Right Mr. President?
Just like with everything else, they want one thing for themselves and something else for the working-class citizen. They strip public school funding and send their kids to private school. They send the sons and daughters of the working class off to die in foreign wars but their kids don’t sign up. They want privacy and choice for them and their own families, just not for you. That’s not pro-life, that’s the same elitist attitude these so-called leaders have about everything, and I will never sit quiet when our working-class citizens are under attack.