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 Washington Notebook

December 15, 2004
Vol. 1, No. 45

Joe Feuerherd, NCR Washington correspondent


"I have long believed that we ought to make a home for pro-life Democrats. 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."

Howard Dean


Democrats and the politics of abortion

By Joe Feuerherd

Is the national 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.

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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 intractable stance on abortion is increasingly seen as part of the reason for its decline. In a post-election meeting with supporters, including pro-choice Democrats, the magazine reports that John Kerry "told the group they needed new ways to make people understand that they didn't like abortion." Kerry told them that "Democrats also needed to welcome more pro-life candidates into the party."

Even Howard Dean, an unannounced candidate for the Party's 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 Meet the Press's Tim Russert last Sunday. "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 notes 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."

Meanwhile, Catholics for a Free Choice president Frances Kissling writes 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."

Since January of this year, I've written more than 10,000 words on the politics of abortion. Through the magic of cut-and-paste and the computer's whiz-bang "word count" function, I added them up. Quantity over quality? Perhaps. But all that keyboard pounding leads me to a question: Who convinced the Democrats that siding with its most extreme elements on the most controversial and divisive domestic issue facing the country would further the goal of actually winning elections? It's political malpractice. And, by all appearances, it cost John Kerry votes.

But there's a reason for it.

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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 in pledging fealty to the cause. Not a hint of dissent was offered, no examination of the complexity of the issue entertained. Parental consent laws? Fuggetaboutit. 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 anti-abortion tradition, if he had run a pro-life, pro-poor, anti-war campaign. He could hardly have done worse, given that he got just one 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. To win elections at the national level -- to be competitive with the millions of voters reluctant to support a virtually unregulated abortion regime -- the party must move toward the people. It could start, for example, with parental consent laws -- supported by 73 percent of Americans. Or laws requiring a 24-hour-waiting-period before a women can undergo an abortion (78 percent support) or measures requiring abortion-providers to provide information on alternatives (88 percent support) or limits on third-trimester abortions (70 percent support). Or anything that would demonstrate Democrats don't view abortion as a moral good, but as, at best, a necessary evil, something to be discouraged if not outlawed.

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, Rev. Jim Wallis, editor in chief of Sojourners, argued in a June 2004 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 anti-abortion 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, 2004 editorial, took up Wallis' 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?

"Such a requirement would not end debate, but frame it.

"For instance, would increasing the minimum wage add to family incomes (and thus make abortion a less attractive option) or increase unemployment at the low-end of the wage scale, making pregnancy termination more likely? Let's get some solid analysis and debate it.

"If such a question were asked, the debate over extending Medicaid coverage (many states are cutting back because of tight budgets) to pregnant women and young children above miserly federal poverty measurements would be about more than the budgetary bottom line. Increased daycare assistance for those in poverty would be an explicitly pro-life issue. Nutrition and health programs for expectant mothers could not be viewed solely as 'government handouts.' And so on."

"It is time," the paper concluded, "to require those who are 'pro-life' and others who want to see abortion become 'rare' to put more than words on the line."

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.

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 U.S. during his or her first term? Let the Republicans 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 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 specially designed to reduce the number of abortions performed? 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.

The e-mail address for Joe Feuerherd is

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