The Party’s Best Interest: The Case for Supporting Pro-Life Democrats

"In order that parties should assume the character of organs of the people, it is essential that they be widely open and allow for a continual stream of influence from without. A party which is so anxious to preserve the purity and strict discipline of its members as to remain voluntarily a minority or even a small minority and which is governed by a small group of leaders never exposed to the risks of election has no part to play in democracy; it has all the essential features of an organization calculated to foster oligarchy." - Yves R. Simon

"The poor cry out for justice, and we respond with legalized abortion." - Garciela Olivarez

The Democratic Party has an elections problem.  Despite positioning themselves as the opposition to Trump, the Democrats have not been able to translate the president’s abysmal approval ratings into victories on the campaign trail.  While some thought the Jon Ossoff campaign would lead to a referendum on the Trump presidency, the defeat turned out to be more of referendum on the Democratic Party establishment.  Needless to say, it is one thing to talk of resistance, march in the streets, and call your representative with ever-growing zeal—it is another thing to win elections and hold a majority.  Without a majority, the Democrats risk letting the signature legislation of the Obama administration, the Affordable Care Act, be repealed.  The reality of a Trump presidency demands that the Democrats win a majority, and fast.  Only a majority will enable them to effectively resist the Trump White House’s agenda and pass their own legislation, just as the Democratic majority in 2010 allowed them to pass the ACA in 2010 without a single Republican vote.  That is not to say, however, that there was no disagreements or compromises in 2010.  Rather, the ACA would never have passed without the support of a substantial number of pro-life Democratic politicians (including, at the time, Virginia’s own Tom Perriello), that supported the Stupak Amendment to put Hyde Amendment language in the ACA.  Although the amendment failed to pass in the Senate, President Obama’s willingness to sign an executive order effectively implementing the Stupak Amendment in order to secure the support of pro-life Democrats was an important and necessary step in passing the ACA.

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What ever happened to the many pro-life Democrats that helped pass the ACA in 2010?  Immediately after the ACA was signed into law, establishment pro-life groups like the Susan B. Anthony List chased down pro-life Democrats who voted for the ACA.  Since then, the Democrats have shown very little interest in pursuing a 50-state strategy, and the party establishment has been effectively barring any pro-life Democrat from winning an election.  Take Heath Mello for example.  Mello was the Democratic candidate for mayor of Omaha, Nebraska.  As a Democrat running against an incumbent Republican in a red state, his campaign was supported by Bernie Sanders along with Tom Perez as part of their “Come Together, Fight Back” tour.  When word got out that Mello had sponsored a “2009 state Senate bill to require women be informed of their right to request a fetal ultrasound,” National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL) released a statement denouncing the Democrats for supporting Mello.  Tom Perez, the party’s chairman, backed up on his support for Mello and even went so far as to say that support for abortion was “not negotiable” for Democrats.  After some backtracking by Mello and pressure building from both sides, Mello lost the election on May 9, 2017.  In situations like this, where the party effectively denounces its own candidates for disagreeing on a particular issue, the Democrats rob themselves of a majority by shooting themselves in the foot every time they come close to winning a seat in red states.  

The Democratic Party establishment has certainly not been the warmest to its own pro-life candidates.  There is, however, a significant number of elected Democrats who are or lean pro-life, including three US senators (Bob Casey, Joe Donnelly, and Joe Manchin) and the only Democratic governor in the South, John Bel Edwards.  While pro-choice voters may want them to change their views on abortion, forcing elected pro-life Democrats to change their positions would only cause the party to hemorrhage in places they need to be winning to form a majority.  In order to form a majority the party needs to realize when its own interests do not always align with the interests of NARAL and Planned Parenthood, who would naturally be against any pro-life candidate winning.  In order to comprehensively pursue its own interests of forming a majority that can oppose the agenda of the Trump whitehouse, the Democratic party has to positively support, and not merely tolerate, their pro-life candidates.

Supporting pro-life Democratic candidates would also help move past what has recently been the main conflict within the Democratic Party—that of the progressive, economic populist left, generally embodying figures like Bernie Sanders, Keith Ellison, and Tom Perriello on one side, and the centrist, moderate faction represented by the likes of Hillary Clinton, Tom Perez, and Ralph Northam.  The populist wing often presents itself as the key to winning back once economically prosperous areas, like the rust belt or coal country, from the likes of Donald Trump.  What they often run into is the question: “What’s the matter with Kansas?  Why do poor, working class people vote against their own economic self-interest?”  The problem, however, is that they are working off of a false dichotomy that assumes all voting is based on economics, and that other values do not factor in.  When it comes to areas like the South and the Rust Belt, many voters hold strong convictions on this issue, and any campaign for a progressive economic populism will ultimately fail because the voters cannot stomach the legalized on-demand abortion that the same candidates support.

Some Democrats may disagree at this point and ask: “Isn’t this all caving?  Shouldn’t we stay true to our principles and our commitment to fight on behalf of all people?  Wouldn’t we be turning our backs on women?  Isn’t this all turning back the clock?”  While the alliance between pro-choice organizations and the Democratic Party may have seemed coherent from the perspective of the party establishment, the views of many Americans problematize the assumption found in the rhetoric of NARAL that the fundamental rights of women are currently under siege by grey-haired, white, bible-thumping Republicans.  In fact, according to numerous polls cited by the Democrats for Life of America in a July 2016 report, “32% of Democrats and 50% of Independents identify as pro-life.”  Furthermore, “54% of Hispanic Millennials (18-35) are pro-life,” and “51% of African Americans view abortion as morally wrong.” In 2011, 48% of Democrats making under $30,000 a year considered themselves pro-life, while only 43% considered themselves pro-choice.  Despite the rhetoric found in press releases of NARAL and Planned Parenthood, most women support restrictions on abortion in some way.  

In addition to polls, the existence of many “non-traditional” pro-life organizations, including ones operative on the left, speak to the different ways in which people take “fighting for all people” to mean.  These groups include Feminists for Life, Feminists for Nonviolent Choices, New Wave Feminists, Rehumanize International, Democrats for Life, Secular Pro-Life, and The Pro-Life Alliance of Gays and Lesbians.  The Women’s March on Washington stirred up controversy when it disinvited New Wave Feminists as a sponsor of the march, but many pro-lifers showed up regardless.

Far from “turning back the clock,” opening the party to pro-life voices will save the party from being seen as stuck in boomer-era culture wars.  The legalized abortion lobby, after all, has its reasons for being aggressive.  Its own research has shown that there is an “intensity gap” on the issue of abortion.  As the Washington Post explains, “most anti-abortion voters under 30 (51 percent) considered it a ‘very important’ voting issue. Among abortion-rights millennials, that number stood at 26 percent.”  Opening up the conversation on abortion within the Democratic Party will keep the party open to new approaches to politics which transcend old boundaries and save the party from becoming stale to future generations.  

What this survey of pro-life organizations and attitudes shows is that there are more than two ways of thinking about abortion and women who face difficult pregnancies.  Much ink has been spilled arguing over whether abortion is a right, a tragedy, or both, and no consensus has emerged among the electorate.  What this piece has tried to articulate is that the biggest left-of-center party in America cannot content itself with one side of this issue.  Focusing on common ground by exploring ways in which society and the government can actively support women in difficult and unexpected pregnancies is the only way to make progress towards a resolution on this issue.  If the Democrats could rally behind reducing abortion by supporting and educating new mothers, or a new welfare program for mothers and children, they could begin to make this progress.  

Abortion has been and will remain one of the most perennially divisive issues in American politics.  Recently, the Democrats have been content to follow the lead of powerful interests such as NARAL on this issue.  But the reality of the Trump presidency demands that the Democrats wake up from their dogmatic slumber.  Obama is not president anymore.  The party is at its weakest since 1928.  The only way forward is to start the long task of winning back the criminal amount of seats that they have lost over the past eight years.  1928, after all, was followed by 1932.  By opening the party to pro-life voices and supporting pro-life candidates in pro-life districts, usually in the Midwest and South, the Democrats can win back the majority they have enjoyed in the past.  This is in the best interest of the party, and will make the party more reflective of the views of millions of Americans, many of whom have not been voting for Democrats solely on account of this issue.  The way forward is not by doubling down on divisive issues but by opening up to different points of view.  We can have a party that is in the majority or we could have a party that takes a hard line on one of the most contentious issues in the country—we cannot have both.