The Forsaken Pro-Life Democrat
It is the day after San Francisco Judge Phyllis Hamilton declared the Partial Birth Abortion Ban unconstitutional, and the shockwaves are still rippling through the political world. “We don’t have anyone to talk to you right now,” says a frazzled receptionist at the National Right to Life Committee. “The phones have been ringing off the hook.”
But not all pro-life spokespeople are so busy. Kristen Day has plenty of time to talk. She is the executive director of Democrats for Life of America, Inc., the only such group with a national profile. But as far as most of the media are concerned, she may as well be invisible.
“The Washington Post never calls us,” she sighs, sipping a coffee at a small cafê near her D.C. office, newborn child in tow. If the Post were to call her, here’s what she would say.
“The Democratic party is the party that should be pro-life,” Day says. “We should be the ones to speak out for those vulnerable in our society–those who don’t have a voice.”
Marginalized by their own party, overlooked by campaign donors, attacked by pro-choice groups and targeted by Republicans seeking to win their seats, many pro-life Democrats live out Hobbes’s dictum that life is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.
A few stalwarts like Day persevere in spite of all, hoping to push their party to rethink abortion politics. Prominent among them is Rep. James Oberstar of Minnesota. Oberstar holds out hope for the cause in the Democratic party, but strains to convince. “To win (Congress), we’ve got to be inclusive,” he tells DOUBLETHINK.
“It is really tough for a pro-life Democrat,” Day says. “There is so much pressure on members to change.”
How It Used To Be
“A generation or two ago, the Republicans were the pro-choice party and the Democrats were considered the pro-life party,” notes syndicated columnist Mark Shields, a pro-life liberal. Planned Parenthood was a favorite charity of George H.W. Bush, he observes–one indication of the sea change in opinion that happened over the last few decades.
To many Democrats, the pro-life position once seemed a natural fit with the party’s self-image as champion of the underdog. In the 95th Congress (1977-78), the Democrats had a 292-seat majority that included 125 pro-life Democrats. In 1976, then-candidate Jimmy Carter opposed public funding for abortions. Emerging leaders like Dick Gephardt, Al Gore, and Jesse Jackson Sr. were all originally pro-life.
Even the hard-left was open to a pro-life stance. The September 1980 issue of the Progressive featured dueling articles arguing for the pro-choice and pro-life positions. It also ran an editorial acknowledging deep divides over abortion. “The debate over current public policy toward abortion is one that divides the left, just as it divides others,” the editors wrote.
“To pretend otherwise–or to maintain that there is no room for differences on this within the left–is to divide us further and to weaken us in what must be our common resolve to build a world in which freedom of choice and the right to life can coexist.”
Following this special issue, the Progressive received an “almost unprecedented” outpouring of reader mail. Many took the pro-life side.
So what happened? Ronald Reagan’s election was obviously a major factor. He helped shift the Republicans to the pro-life side, sparking an opposite reaction among Democrats.
Failure to pass the Equal Rights Amendment may have been another factor. After that stalled in the early 1980s, many feminists turned their energies to abortion rights.
Money clearly mattered, too. Emily’s List, a PAC devoted exclusively to electing pro-choice Democratic women founded in 1985, is a major player in Democratic politics and fundraising today. It reaped $20 million in 2002 alone, and its activities are mirrored by other pro-choice groups such as NARAL, NOW, and Planned Parenthood.
Gradually the ranks of pro-life Democrats began to shrink, and so did their clout. By their own admission, they were slow to see what was happening. It wasn’t until the 1992 party convention when then-governor of Pennsylvania Bob Casey was barred from making a pro-life speech that they realized how completely the tide had shifted.
“We’re shrinking because of this death grip that the abortion lobby has on the party,” says Michael Schwartz, an activist with Concerned Women for America and a pro-life Democrat.
Beleaguered on the Hill
In Congress, the Democrats today have 205 seats and about 30 pro-life Democrats. There are five consistently pro-life Senate Democrats. One, Zell Miller, is retiring. They are typically New Deal-style liberals, often populist and pro-union. Others are simple conservatives. Many hail from rust belt states like Michigan, Ohio, and West Virginia–all considered swing states in the next election. Ben Nelson of Nebraska is the most outspoken. They made a critical difference in passing the Partial Birth Abortion Ban in the Senate, where it received 16 Democratic votes.
There are other legislative signs that pro-life Dems matter. The Unborn Victims of Violence Act, which makes it a separate crime to kill or injure an unborn child during an attack on the mother (better known as the Laci and Conner Peterson bill), passed 61-38 in the Senate with 13 Democratic votes and 254-163 in the House, with 47 Democratic votes. Such bipartisan support warmed some pro-life Democrats to the idea of a pro-life resurgence in their party, but no one is expecting a return to the 1970s.
Leo LaLonde, a National Right to Life Committee board member and Democratic activist in Minnesota, stays in the party because he sees it as the best way to advance the cause. “We need pro-lifers on both sides of the aisle in Congress,” he said. But LaLonde and his cohorts are routinely scorned and shunted aside by their own party.
The rebuffs tend to come from all levels of the party, but the ones from the top are the most noticeable–and the most damaging. A case in point occurred earlier this year, when Oberstar and Rep. Bart Stupak of Michigan approached DNC chief Terry McAuliffe about having the DNC website link to Democrats for Life’s website.
McAuliffe claimed party lawyers had raised concerns about it, and said he’d get back to them. They’re still waiting.
Oberstar fumed. “They linked to the (American) Farm Bureau,” he noted. “Why not an avowedly Democratic group?”
K Street for Choice
The structural disadvantage in insider politics inevitably means pro-life Dems must scrounge for campaign funding. “There are some folks that tell me they cannot support me because I’m pro-life and others who don’t call me because they don’t want to tell me that,” said Steve Stoll, a pro-life Democrat running to replace former House Democratic leader Dick Gephardt.
Because Democratic donors often avoid them, pro-life Dems end up competing with Republican pro-life candidates for money. The result is that, whatever difference pro-life Democrats may make to important floor votes, they haven’t funds to do much else. While groups like Emily’s List are lavishly funded, Democrats for Life candidly admits that it can’t raise any funds for candidates right now, though they plan to create a PAC next year.
In fact, Democrats for Life, a 501(c)4 organization, doesn’t even have an office of its own. It uses office space lent to it by a law firm. Founded in 1999, it has just two part-time staffers in addition to Day and an annual budget of $150,000, minuscule by pressure-group standards and small even compared to garden-variety Washington nonprofits.
With so little financial clout, it’s no surprise pro-life Democrats on the Hill have a hard time just surviving. Two years ago Democrats for Life released a list of 33 solidly pro-life members in the House. Of that list 11 are either no longer in Congress, have changed their stance on the issue, or have left the party. One, Rep. Ken Lucas of Kentucky, is retiring. Several were the victims of redistricting. Another, Texas Rep. Ralph Hall, switched parties. Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich abandoned his pro-life position altogether. And the U.S. Bureau of Prisons beamed up Ohio Rep. Jim Traficant in 2002.
Of the 11, only two were replaced by pro-life Democrats. Things improved in 2002 when four new pro-life Democrats were elected, but the prospects for further gains are uncertain.
The Kucinich case highlights another problem. It may be possible to retain pro-life views as a regional figure, as Kucinich did. But the pressure to switch becomes crushing once politicians try to enter the national stage.
After Nation columnist Katha Pollitt exposed then-presidential candidate Kucinich as a pro-lifer, he abruptly reversed his position. Gore and Gephardt’s switches also came shortly before their first bids for the presidency.
One has to wonder, then, why bother? Why not spare themselves the grief and toe the party line on abortion?
Pro-life Democrats say their consciences just won’t let them. In conversations, the phrase “the seamless garment” comes up a lot–the Catholic belief that providing for social welfare includes protecting the unborn.
Others support it for nonreligious reasons.
“I am a secularist and an atheist but I became pro-life because of biology,” says columnist Nat Hentoff, a member of Democrats for Life’s national advisory board. “It’s a human being. Therefore abortion takes away human life. That’s why I’m part of that group.”
“It’s one of those issues that they came to based upon principle,” says Ohio Republican Steve Chabot, a pro-lifer in the House who often works with the Democrats.
The Electoral Imperative
Pro-life Democrats have a second argument: The pro-choice position has been electoral suicide for the Democrats.
Since taking up the pro-choice banner, the party has steadily hemorrhaged seats in Congress, eventually losing control of the House. Nor has a presidential candidate been able to crack 50 percent nationally since Carter.
“It’s a great fundraising issue, but it isn’t winning Democrats votes,” Shields says.
Nor is support for the pro-choice position as strong as its advocates often claim. Some polls say the public is at best lukewarm on keeping abortion legal.
An April Zogby poll of 1,209 respondents found that 56 percent of Americans either opposed abortion or regarded it as acceptable only in cases of rape, incest, or to preserve the health of the mother. By a margin of 3 percentage points, 49 percent to 45 percent, they defined themselves as pro-life rather than pro-choice.
A July 2003 poll sponsored by the pro-choice Center for the Advancement of Women found that 51 percent of women either wanted it illegal or restricted to cases of rape, incest, or to prevent the death of the mother. Only 30 percent wanted abortion generally available.
The DNC did not respond to repeated interview requests. A spokeswoman for Emily’s List had “no comment.” NARAL Pro-Choice America also declined to comment.
Even if one doesn’t buy the argument that being pro-life is the reason for the Democrats’ minority status, it is undeniable that in certain regions, especially the “red” Bush states, it has hurt them. Many of these states were once solidly Democratic.
“There are certain seats that only a pro-life Democrat can win. The party is going to have to look that way,” Day says.
Can the party change? Oberstar says he pressed McAuliffe during their meeting to make the party treat its pro-lifers better. Otherwise, he said, they could remain stuck in the minority for a long time.
“He told me he hadn’t thought about it in those terms before,” Oberstar said.
Nevertheless, pro-life Democrats say they’re beginning to see signs of a possible shift. They say the withholding of Holy Communion by some Catholic bishops has raised alarms among party leaders. Others say polls show opinion is shifting their way.
Of course, if you’re a pro-life Democrat, you pretty much have to be an optimist.
“I cannot believe that real Democratic politicians who make their living by winning elections would rather lose than displease the abortion lobby,” said Concerned Women for America’s Schwartz. “I just cannot believe that in the long run they’re going to do that.”
Sean Higgins is Washington correspondent for Investor’s Business Daily.