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Issue Date:  January 7, 2005

After election loss, some say Democrats should rethink abortion stance

New approach: a commitment to policies to ease baby burden


Is the Democratic Party willing to rethink its position on abortion?

Forget morality and theology for the moment; ignore church-state concerns and the complexity of imposing restrictive laws in a pluralistic society. Think politics.

Political parties exist to win elections, something the Democratic Party -- a minority in the House, in the Senate, in gubernatorial mansions and State Houses, and certainly in the White House -- has not been doing a lot of lately. There is a genuine concern among Democratic Party elders that the world’s oldest political party could settle into minority status for a generation or more if something is not done to reverse the obvious trends.

And, as Newsweek reported in its Dec. 20 issue, the party’s hard-line stance on abortion is increasingly seen as part of the reason for its decline. The magazine reports that in a post-election meeting with supporters, including pro-choice Democrats, John Kerry “told the group they needed new ways to make people understand that they didn’t like abortion.” Kerry told them “Democrats also needed to welcome more pro-life candidates into the party.”

Kerry’s not alone:

  • House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Harry Reid (D-Nev.) are promoting the candidacy of Tim Roemer to head the Democratic National Committee. In addition to his strong antiterrorism credentials (he served on the 9/11 Commission), the Notre Dame graduate and former six-term Indiana congressman has solid antiabortion credentials. The election to succeed outgoing party chairman Terry McAuliffe will take place the second week of February.
  • Howard Dean, an unannounced candidate for the party chairmanship and unabashed pro-choicer, says something must be done. “I have long believed that we ought to make a home for pro-life Democrats,” he told Tim Russert on “Meet the Press” Dec. 12. “The Democrats that have stuck with us, who are pro-life, through their long period of conviction, are people who are the kind of pro-life people that we ought to have deep respect for,” said Dean.
  • Writing in The Washington Post Dec. 14, liberal columnist Richard Cohen noted that the Democratic Party “entertains no doubts and counters reasonable questions and qualms with slogans -- a woman’s right to choose, for instance. The party is downright inhospitable to abortion opponents.” He continued, “It is almost inconceivable that a Democratic [presidential] candidate could voice qualms about abortion. It’s almost inconceivable, though, that the candidates don’t have them.”
  • Catholics for a Free Choice president Frances Kissling wrote in the current issue of Conscience: “It is as if we demand that our political supporters mask moral concern and merely uphold legal rights because we fear that the expression of any sadness for the loss of fetal life that is part of abortion will be interpreted as weakness.”

What a difference two years can make.

Appearing at a January 2003 dinner organized by NARAL Pro-Choice America to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision, the six announced Democratic candidates for president -- Kerry, Edwards, Gephardt, Lieberman, Sharpton and Dean -- tripped over themselves pledging fealty to the cause. Not a hint of dissent was offered, no examination of the complexity of the issue entertained. Parental consent laws? Forget about it. Ban so-called partial-birth abortion? No way.

Given the nature of the event -- a celebration hosted by a stalwart Democratic interest group -- perhaps such dissonance would have been too much to ask. Yet the signal was sent: the pro-choice lobby is to Democrats as the NRA is to Republicans. No dissent is broached; reservations are heretical.

Think the pull of the abortion-rights lobby is exaggerated? Even Rep. Dennis Kucinich, whose quixotic presidential campaign was more about message than winning, felt compelled to flip-flop on the issue. Long a consistent-ethic-of-life Democrat, Kucinich declared a year before the Iowa Caucus that if elected “no one will be appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court if they don’t commit to supporting Roe v. Wade.” Kucinich would likely have done better in Iowa, which has a strong Democratic antiabortion tradition, if he had run a pro-life, pro-poor, antiwar campaign. He could hardly have done worse, given that he got just 1 percent of the vote. But even the gadfly wouldn’t buck the system.

The irony is that it is Democrats who have the most room to maneuver on abortion. No one expects the party’s standard-bearer to support repeal of Roe v. Wade. From a political point of view that would make little sense, since nearly 60 percent of Americans oppose overturning the 1973 court decision. And the party owes loyalty to pro-choice Democrats (including those who express reservations about abortion but support Roe) who are clearly a majority within its ranks.

Loyalty, however, is not a political suicide pact. And dogmatic fidelity to the pro-choice agenda is not a mainstream view. Parental consent laws are supported by 73 percent of Americans, while similar majorities support a 24-hour waiting period before a woman can undergo an abortion, as well as measures requiring abortion providers to make available information on alternatives. Seventy percent support limits on third-trimester abortions. It’s popular for hardliners on both sides of the abortion debate to claim that a majority of Americans support their point of view. And it’s true that polls can be interpreted many different ways. But a close reading indicates that Americans are not -- 30 years and 40 million post-Roe legal abortions later -- confused by the issue. Conflicted, yes, but not confused. Millions of Americans have personal experience with abortion -- either directly or through a family member or close friend -- and their positions are nuanced. Bottom line: Minorities on both sides favor prohibition or absolute license, while the vast majority of Americans are in the middle, which is why Bill Clinton’s famous formulation -- he wanted abortion “safe, legal and rare” -- was such a rhetorical masterstroke.

So what are today’s Democrats to do?

Writing in Slate, Steven Waldman, editor in chief of Beliefnet, offered this advice: “Republican leaders routinely sit down with their interest groups and say, in effect, ‘Cut me some slack and we’ll win this thing.’ And the interest groups do -- and they win. Democratic politicians have to say to pro-choice groups, ‘You got 100 percent pro-choice purity from the Democratic nominee -- and Republican control of the White House, Senate, the House and Supreme Court. Perhaps we could try a different approach?’ ”

What might that “different approach” be?

Democrats need to be tolerant of pro-lifers in their ranks, the Rev. Jim Wallis, editor in chief of Sojourners, argued in a June article. “But if the Democrats were really smart,” he continued, “they would do something more. … The Democrats could affirm that they are still the pro-choice party, but then also say what most Americans believe: that the abortion rate in America is much too high for a good, healthy society that respects both women and children. They could make a serious public commitment to actually do something about significantly reducing the abortion rate. Abortion is historically used as a symbolic issue in campaigns, and then forgotten when the election is over. Republicans win elections on the basis of their antiabortion position, and then proceed to ignore the issue (and the nation’s abortion rate, highest in the industrial world) by doing nothing to reduce the number of abortions.”

NCR’s editors, in a Sept. 24 editorial, advanced a similar notion: “Why not require that every piece of social welfare legislation Congress considers be subject to a ‘pregnancy impact statement’? Such studies would seek to answer one question: Will the legislation in question make it more or less likely that a woman will carry her child to term?”

There are strong indications (official numbers are expected early in the new year) that the abortion rate rose during the presidency of George W. Bush, the pro-life president. It dropped during Bill Clinton’s presidency.

For some Democratic strategists, the message could not be clearer: Promote genuine choice by giving women experiencing crisis pregnancies real options and concentrate on pragmatic results. Aim high. Could the next Democratic presidential candidate pledge to halve the number of abortions performed in the United States during his or her first term? Some argue that the Democrats should allow the Republicans to play Lucy to the religious right’s Charlie Brown and promise, promise, promise that one day, if the stars achieve perfect alignment, if President Bush gets to nominate some justices, if the Supreme Court then overturns Roe, if 50 state legislatures can then be persuaded to enact prohibition, then legal abortion will be a thing of the past.

Americans, however, like pragmatic solutions to seemingly intractable problems.

Today, the phrase “Leave No Child Behind” is associated most prominently, and with little irony, with George W. Bush, and not with those at the Children’s Defense Fund who coined the phrase. It was a clever piece of rhetorical thievery on the Republicans’ part.

Could the Democratic Party commit similar political larceny? Adopt in-your-face programs and strategies specifically designed to reduce the number of abortions? Can the Democrats become, without irony or embarrassment, the “pro-life” party?

Don’t bet the farm. There are formidable forces within the party who have a strong interest in maintaining the status quo.

But at the same time don’t underestimate the impact of continuing electoral decline. Politicians, after all, want power -- and they can’t wield it if they don’t win.

Joe Feuerherd is NCR Washington correspondent. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, January 7, 2005

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