Politics & Policy

Turn The Beat Around

Can Democrats be pro-life?

With the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade 32 years ago abortion became perhaps the most heated national political issue. Over time the two sides increasingly have broken down along partisan lines. It shouldn’t be that way.

Former Democratic Rep. Tim Roemer (Ind.) is running for Democratic National Committee Chairman and says “there must be a place in our party” for opponents of abortion. Even Sen. Hillary Clinton (D., N.Y.) has advocated finding “common ground” in the abortion debate. Election losses wonderfully concentrate the minds of politicians.

Many Democrats seem to realize that “it’s the values, stupid.” The problem is not simply the fact that many of them, such as Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry, don’t share the views of the majority of Americans on cultural and social issues. Worse, many liberal elites demonstrate ostentatious contempt and disdain for those opinions.

As with the issue of abortion.

Being pro-life has been political death for any Democrat with national aspirations. Bill Clinton, Al Gore, and Richard Gephardt all abandoned varying pro-life tendencies when they decided to run for president. The Democratic party unashamedly flouted its rhetoric regarding “diversity” when it barred pro-life Pennsylvania Gov. Bob Casey from speaking at the 1996 convention.

Indeed, many on the Left are unable to even contemplate a legitimate argument against legal abortion. There long has been no quicker or surer way to be considered a Neanderthal than to suggest that the unborn might warrant legal protection.

In practice, the pro-abortion lobby errs “on the side of inhumanity,” as one satirical blogger put it. That is a strange position for a party that claims to speak for the poor and disadvantaged. After all, a fetus is a genetically unique developing human nine months away from full physical independence.

But more to the point for Democratic politicians, the pro-choice mantra is politically costly. Polls find an eight-point margin for the pro-life perspective among voters.

The continuing success of pro-life candidates like President George W. Bush has caught the attention of some on the Left. Sara Blustain, deputy editor of The American Prospect, is disturbed by the absolutist rhetoric of the pro-choice movement. Blustain worries about the stridency of liberal rhetoric about abortion, which is “not nuanced enough to absorb the emotional or even legal complexity” of the issue. Indeed, Blustain wrote in her magazine, “abortion is a right that ends in sorrow, not celebration.”

The new Senate Minority Leader, Harry Reid of Nevada, has voted against abortion and has even criticized the seminal abortion case, Roe v. Wade.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi seems to be encouraging former Rep. Tim Roemer of Indiana for Democratic National Committee chairman despite the fact that he is no pro-abortion extremist. He has explicitly called for banning late-term or partial-birth abortions. He also advocates encouraging adoption, “and working with our churches to sponsor some of those adoptions.”

Former Vermont Governor and presidential candidate Howard Dean, also running for DNC chairman, says: “We ought not turn our back on pro-life people.” Simon Rosenberg, another DNC chairman candidate who is president of the centrist New Democratic Network, is more equivocal, claiming that the majority of Democrats and Americans are “pro-choice,”, so “I don’t think we have to run away from choice as a party, but I do think we have to explain our position that we want to make abortion safe, legal and rare”–President Bill Clinton’s classic formulation.

Strategist Donna Brazile, who managed Al Gore’s 2000 campaign, cites abortion as an issue that puts “us into the extreme and not the mainstream.” She adds: “Even I have trouble explaining to my family that we are not about killing babies.”

The outgoing Democratic Chairman of Iowa, Gordon Fischer, complained that Republicans had succeeded in defining Democrats “as the abortion any time, anywhere party.” Democratic consultant Howard Wolfson works with pro-abortion groups yet acknowledged that “Either we’re going to begin talking about this a different way and making our arguments effectively, or we’re going to keep losing.”

Some Democratic activists are now debating the wisdom of accepting popular restrictions on abortion–banning partial-birth procedures, requiring parental notification, addressing the possibility of fetal pain, imposing penalties for fetal homicide. A number of Democrats even are advising against filibustering judicial nominees critical of Roe v. Wade.

Indeed, John Kerry recently told a meeting of Democratic activists that they had to demonstrate they didn’t like abortion. Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, reportedly observed: “There was a gasp in the room.”

But that gasp exemplifies the Democrats’ challenge. Many activists don’t understand what there is about abortion not to like. Others offer only rhetoric. For instance, Sen. Clinton restated her support for Roe, thereby offering little practical protection for the unborn.

As Catholics for a Free Choice’s Frances Kissling points out in a recent essay, “Abortion is a profoundly moral question and any movement that fails to grapple with and respect all the values at stake in crafting a social policy about abortion will be inadequate in its effort to win the support of the majority of Americans.” Some Democrats are listening, encouraging Kristen Day, executive director of Democrats for Life.

But Democrats must do more than talk the talk. They must walk the walk.

It is not enough to talk about the unborn as life. Democrats must treat the unborn as life.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and a former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. A former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is the author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire. He recently was a scholar-in-residence at the Centre for Independent Studies in Sydney, Australia.

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