Had you flipped through the New York Post on the subway ride to work on Tuesday, you might have stumbled upon a startling op-ed. Entitled “A strange silence: On city’s soaring abortion rates,” the piece lamented that in New York City, “41 percent of pregnancies ended in abortion” last year. Despite decades of “‘comprehensive’ sex education” in the public schools and the local government’s dispensing 40 million free condoms in 2009 alone, the city had failed to reduce the number of abortions. “It may be time for a different approach,” the author concluded.
The most startling fact, however, was that the author was a Democrat.
His name is Michael Benjamin, and he is a recently retired member of the New York State Assembly. From 2003 to 2011, the 53-year-old politico represented district 79, which covers the middle section of the Bronx. A lifelong resident of the borough, Benjamin earned a bachelor’s degree in political science at Syracuse University and completed one year of study for a master’s in public administration at Binghamton University before entering politics full-time in 1982.
After working with the local Democratic club for several years, Benjamin became involved with the community boards. Eventually, he joined assemblyman — and later congressman — José Serrano’s staff. Over time, he built his political résumé: vice president of the 44th precinct community council, committeeman for the New York State Democratic Committee, deputy field director for Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign.
In other words, Benjamin followed the orthodox path to power. Once in power, however, he was anything but orthodox.
Although not Catholic himself, Benjamin worked with the Archdiocese of New York on a series of issues: opposing embryonic-stem-cell research, requiring parental consent for emergency contraception for minors, and promoting school choice. His motivation wasn’t religious. “I had a Catholic mother and an Anglican father, was raised a Lutheran, and became a Baptist,” Benjamin jokes.
Rather, Benjamin supported pro-life policies because he was convinced of their merits. For instance, he sponsored the Unborn Victims of Violence Act, which would have penalized criminals who attack pregnant women with the intention of harming their unborn children. (The bill ultimately died in committee.)
Benjamin admits to a fundamentally pro-choice outlook. “Roe v. Wade is the law of the land,” he notes. As an assemblyman, Benjamin voted to allow Medicaid funding for abortion. “I don’t think it’s right to deny the poor what a person of means can purchase,” he says.
At a recent news conference, however, Archbishop Timothy Dolan revealed the horrifying statistics that moved Benjamin to write his op-ed: In the Bronx, 48 percent of pregnancies are terminated. Among African-Americans the rate is 60 percent.
“When Archbishop Dolan revealed those statistics,” Benjamin says, “I started scratching my head and wondering, ‘Did I enable that? They may have public assistance. Has it become a family-planning tool for some people?’”
Notwithstanding his moral qualms, Benjamin believes he would still support the funding. “It’s the woman’s personal choice,” he insists. “God is the final judge and not me.”
That said, Benjamin also is working with the Chiaroscuro Foundation, a pro-life nonprofit based in the Big Apple, to develop a program to encourage pregnant women to carry their babies to term. Although the program’s specifics haven’t been finalized, Benjamin knows it will involve local clergy, and he’s already recommended some names to the foundation.
Moreover, Benjamin is starting to question the liberal dogma that comprehensive sex education reduces the number of unwanted pregnancies. “Year after year, bills to provide more funding to Planned Parenthood for comprehensive sex education [win approval in the legislature],” Benjamin says. “It would appear that they may not be the most successful program. . . . Maybe we should look at some alternatives. If these numbers were infant mortality, there would be a great deal of outrage and hearings.”
Benjamin recognizes that his independence is out of the ordinary for a lifelong Democrat. “When a friend of mine was first elected to the assembly in the early ’80s,” he recounts, “I asked him after his first session, ‘What’s it like being in the assembly?’ And to my disappointment, he said, ‘It’s pretty easy. You basically do what the speaker tells you.’”
By contrast, Benjamin styles himself as one of the few members “who debate the issues and vote for the interests of their community.” It helps that his wife, Kennedy Williams, challenges him on his thinking and often gets him to change his mind. For example, Williams persuaded Benjamin to vote to require parental consent for emergency contraception for minors, after voting against it earlier in his tenure.
Yes, Benjamin is a different kind of Democrat: somewhat pro-life and occasionally free-market-friendly. The scuttlebutt is that he plans to challenge his former boss, Serrano, in 2012. Although a conservative should hope for a Reaganite in every district, it wouldn’t hurt to have this rare breed of Democrat move up the food chain.
— Brian Bolduc is a William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This article has been amended since its original posting.