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“Big Tent” or Abortion Sellout?

There’s a war brewing for the soul of the Democratic Party that may decide the future of abortion rights in America. On one side are reproductive rights advocates calling on the party to double down on its historical support of abortion rights and reject antichoice candidates. On the other are those who counsel the party to broaden its appeal—and its voter base—by embracing a big-tent approach on abortion that would welcome “prolife” Democrats but dramatically dilute the party’s prochoice position. Who are these big tent supporters, and why have their voices become so influential in a party supposedly synonymous with abortion rights?

Support for abortion rights is, in theory, a bedrock position of the Democratic Party. It has officially been part of the party’s platform since the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973. According to the 2016 party platform:

“Democrats are committed to protecting and advancing reproductive health, rights, and justice. We believe unequivocally, like the majority of Americans, that every woman should have access to quality reproductive health care services, including safe and legal abortion—regardless of where she lives, how much money she makes, or how she is insured.… We will continue to oppose—and seek to overturn—federal and state laws and policies that impede a woman’s access to abortion, including by repealing the Hyde Amendment.”[1]

Despite this unequivocal position, in the days and months after the 2016 election, voices inside and outside of the party suggested that expecting Democratic candidates to be prochoice was an undesirable “litmus test” that stood in the way of a Democratic majority. This concern was driven not only by the loss of a presidency that seemed within reach, but by the realization that the party had seen its presence at the state level erode by historic margins during the Obama presidency. Republicans picked up some 1,000 seats in state legislatures over eight years and now control 56 percent of all state legislative seats, the most in the party’s history. Democrats are virtually locked out in some red states: In 15 state legislative chambers they hold fewer than 10 seats. The Republican Party now controls both houses of the legislature and the governorship in half of all states; Democrats have full control in only five states.[2]

Who are these big tent supporters, and why have their voices become so influential in a party supposedly synonymous with abortion rights?

Of special concern to the Democratic Party were the white voters, many Catholic, in critical northeastern and midwestern swing states like Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin who shed their allegiance to the Democratic Party to vote for Donald Trump. The seeming abandonment of the Democratic Party by this core group of voters precipitated what can only be characterized as a panic among Democratic strategists and operatives searching for an obvious fix to the party’s problems. In their panic, they fixated on an old answer: ditching the party’s support for what they consider the divisive social issue of abortion, a replay of the “50-state” strategy first espoused by then Democratic National Committee Chair Howard Dean in 2006 after John Kerry lost the presidency in 2004. Then a similar panic swept the party over the belief that it was the loss of “values voters” who opposed abortion that doomed the Democrats. They decided the obvious answer was for the party to pull back from support of abortion rights to woo these voters, although Barack Obama’s eventual victory in 2008 proved an unequivocally prochoice candidate could win the presidency and capture a congressional majority.

But once again in 2017, opponents of legal abortion were happy to exploit the opening provided by the party’s equivocating on abortion in the name of promoting a more “reasonable” approach that would better position the party to attract voters in red and purple states. In a widely read New York Times opinion piece published in March, Boston College professor Thomas Groome argued that “To Win Again, Democrats Must Stop Being the Abortion Party.” According to Groome, Hillary Clinton lost the all-important white Catholic vote because she was viewed as too extreme on abortion, and the party as “unconditionally supporting abortion.” In Groome’s opinion, “If Democrats want to regain the Catholic vote, they must treat abortion as a moral issue, work for its continued reduction and articulate a more nuanced message than, ‘We support Roe v. Wade.’”[3] For him, as well as other supporters of the so-called 50-state strategy, this middle ground includes abandoning a push to repeal the Hyde Amendment that prohibits Medicaid and other government-funded health programs from paying for most abortions. It also means supporting bills like the 20-week abortion bans that have popped up in state legislatures, and which are based on the false science the fetuses can feel pain at this point. Women’s health advocates note, however, that these measures would do nothing to reduce the need for abortion or make women healthier and would serve only to make abortion less accessible. “These bills have to make you wonder what their priorities are. Are they serving an extreme fringe group that wants to overturn Roe v. Wade?” asks Kaylie Hanson Long, national communications director for NARAL Pro-Choice America.

Groome’s assertion that unequivocal support of choice prevents the party from being competitive across the country appeared to resonate, however, with the progressive economic wing of the Democratic Party anchored by Sen. Bernie Sanders. In April, Sanders threw his support behind Omaha mayoral candidate Heath Mello, despite the fact that Mello calls himself prolife and supported an ultrasound bill and a 20-week ban when he was in the state senate. Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, called the move, which Sanders justified because of Mello’s support of progressive economic policies and the need to field candidates who would appeal to voters in the Heartland, a “betrayal.”[4]

But once again in 2017, opponents of legal abortion were happy to exploit the opening provided by the party’s equivocating on abortion in the name of promoting a more “reasonable” approach that would better position the party to attract voters in red and purple states.

House minority leader Nancy Pelosi affirmed shortly thereafter that there should be no abortion litmus test for Democratic candidates, saying that she would not throw the members of her family who were antiabortion Catholics out of the party. Jon O’Brien, president of Catholics for Choice, said Pelosi was “throwing under the bus the rights of women to follow their own consciences” in a moment of electoral panic. “We are facing a very real threat from within the Democratic Party and from outside to take away the right of women to choose an abortion. It’s unacceptable that Pelosi would suggest that you can turn your back on women’s moral autonomy and the right to make conscience-based decisions in order to win back a position of power,” he said.

“The idea that the Democrats need to turn back on abortion is a false idea that has been implanted by the right,” says Virginia-based reproductive rights activist Erin Matson, noting that opponents of abortion such as Marjorie Dannenfelser, who heads the antiabortion PAC the Susan B. Anthony List, and Fordham University professor Charles Camosy have long been pressuring the Democrats to be more accommodating on abortion. In a widely circulated 2016 opinion piece, Camosy counseled the Democrats that they could regain electoral homogeny if only they would abandon their “abortion rights orthodoxy” and “run the best person to fit the district, which in many locales means antiabortion Democrats.”[5]

According to Matson, the antiabortion forces really cannot lose with this strategy. “They want no functional opposition. This is a win-win for them. If there are more antichoice Democrats, then Pence doesn’t have to come over to the Hill to cast the tie-breaking vote on a 20-week abortion ban. And even if they don’t win, it makes it harder to elect Democrats because Democratic voters are pretty motivated by the issue of abortion,” she said. Mason believes this latest permutation of the 50-state strategy is taking advantage of figures on the left like Sanders who “have this dream of an economic agenda that is somehow devoid of what they see as divisive social issues, which of course isn’t an economic justice agenda.” Judy Waxman, the former vice president of Health and Reproductive Rights at the National Women’s Law Center, says that while she does not see “a conspiracy to steer the party in another direction,” some in the party have a blind spot on the issue of reproductive rights and justice. “Bernie Sanders has his class filter, and he is looking at everything through a class lens. The problem is he lacks a gender lens and a racial lens. His [filter] leaves out difference in economic access that aren’t just about class issues; even if that were fixed, you still have to think about how gender and race contribute to economic cultures,” she said.

For Waxman and other women’s health advocates the fatal flaw in Sanders’ thinking is to believe it is possible to separate out abortion as a “social” issue distinct from the “economic” issues like the minimum wage that he is passionate about. “Millions of Americans see that the fight for abortion access and reproductive freedom isn’t some abstract fight about ‘social issues,’” says Hanson Long. “These are really bread-and-butter issues that affect our families and women’s ability to support their families, plan for future and, frankly, be equal partners in society.”

And, notes Hanson Long, the polling simply does not back the assertion that support for abortion rights is detrimental to the Democratic Party. “The vast majority of people in red states and blue states support legal access to abortion. White working-class, so-called drop-off voters overwhelmingly support choice,” she said. A recent poll analysis by the General Social Survey found that Democratic-leaning Independents, a group that presumably includes many of the drop-off voters the party is trying to persuade, are the single most liberal group on abortion—62 percent support a woman’s right to an abortion for any reason. Similarly, Republican-leaning Independents are also more liberal on abortion than Republicans in general—39 percent support a woman’s right to abortion under any circumstances.[6]

Following Pelosi’s lead, however, in late July Rep. Ben Ray Luján, chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), announced that the DCCC would fund the campaigns of antichoice Democrats in an effort to pick up 24 seats in the 2018 midterm elections to regain control of the House. “As we look at candidates across the country, you need to make sure you have candidates that fit the district, that can win in these districts across America,” Luján said.[7]

But that thinking is exactly counter to how the party needs to position itself to retake the majority, says Emily Cain, executive director of the prochoice PAC Emily’s List. “This is not only bad politics, but bad policy. The argument that you have to be antichoice to win isn’t true. The path for victory for Democrats is by electing more prochoice Democratic women. We need to elect more women because we need to change the conversation,” she said, noting the organization had been contacted by more than 18,000 women who are interested in running for office since last November.

The message from Democratic voters, particularly women, seems loud and clear. The only question is: Who is the party listening to?

Cain says the pressure on the party to adopt an antichoice stance is the result of “a conservative agenda led and championed by Republican elected officials who will make every effort to roll back reproductive care for women at all stages of life.” She does not believe there are that many people within the Democratic Party who support a rollback of abortion rights, but rather that “Republicans amplify their [the antichoice Democrats] voices because it suits their [the Republican] agenda.” Alencia Johnson, director of Constituency Communications at Planned Parenthood Action Fund, agrees that the effort is the result of “a few fringe folks with a loud megaphone who are trying to make this an issue to drive a wedge in the party.”

Pressure is also being put on the party from within by the group Democrats for Life, which similarly sees an opportunity to weaken the bedrock Democratic support for abortion rights. In June, Democrats for Life met with Democratic National Committee chair Tom Perez after he asserted, “Every Democrat, like every American, should support a woman’s right to make her own choices about her body and her health.”[8] Under the rubric of creating a big tent to allow the party to prosper in all 50 states, Democrats for Life demanded that the party make it clear it welcomes antiabortion Democrats. The organization requested “a clear statement from our party chair that eliminates the current litmus test on abortion,” including “a public statement on the [DNC] website and a letter from the chairman to all state and local party chairs explaining that the party does not support an abortion litmus test and pressuring people to change their position on life.” Democrats for Life also requested the party drop its platform language opposing the Hyde Amendment and recruit antiabortion Democratic candidates as well as create a “Democratic Pro-Life Political Action Committee” to support these candidates.[9]

Despite its demands, Democrats for Life is largely a one-woman shop run by antiabortion activist Kristen Day and supported by a handful of junior “fellows”; Charles Camosy is a board member. There are currently only three elected officials listed as members of its “Federal Advisory Board”: Sen. Joe Donnelly (IN), Sen. Joe Manchin (WV) and Rep. Dan Lipinski (IL).[10] According to The Atlantic, Lipinski was the only sitting elected official who could be confirmed as attending the DNC meeting.[11] In addition to representing a slice of the party so small it could not be termed a faction, the policies the organization supports are far outside the mainstream of the Democratic Party. Democrats for Life supports the defunding of Planned Parenthood and a ban on abortions after 20 weeks with no exceptions. Day has asserted that “late-term abortions are never necessary.”[12] The organization also supported allowing the denial of contraception to women employees in the Hobby Lobby/Conestoga Wood Supreme Court case.

For many prochoice Democrats, the deference shown the organization raises the question of exactly what the party stands for if it does not stand for choice as a foundational issue. “If the candidate had said, ‘I totally support everything in the Democratic agenda, just not the minimum wage or the Affordable Care Act,’ what’s the reaction then? Why does it get to be OK to jettison abortion, but not other issues,” asked Waxman. O’Brien said that while diversity in the party is a laudable goal, “It’s imperative that the party not seek diversity that dismantles the very ideals it holds dear—civil rights, social justice and a commitment to human dignity and moral autonomy.”

Matson points to the upcoming Virginia gubernatorial race, which will pit outspoken prochoice advocate Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam against GOP candidate Ed Gillespie, who wants to see abortion banned in most circumstances, as a microcosm of the national debate. In a state with an important rural constituency, antiabortion groups are working to paint Northam as an extremist who threatens the Democratic agenda. “We want to see Democrats see this extremism on this issue as a political vulnerability,” Susan B. Anthony List spokesperson Mallory Quigley told the Washington Post.[13] But Northam handily beat former Rep. Tom Perriello in a hotly contested Democratic primary. Perriello ran on a platform of economic populism geared to appeal to white working-class voters and was backed by Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren. But he had founded an antichoice group and had voted for the controversial Stupak amendment that would have banned private health plans from covering abortion under the Affordable Care Act; both of these turned off many moderate voters. Ironically, he said he took the vote on the Stupak amendment as an attempt to appease voters in his Hampton Roads district after pitching himself as someone who was reasonable on abortion and opposed the Hyde Amendment—the very same thing antiabortion groups are pressing for. The message from Democratic voters, particularly women, seems loud and clear. The only question is: Who is the party listening to? To their voters or to conservative antiabortion forces looking to stampede the party further away from support of choice as a core value?

[1] 2016 Democratic Party Platform: https://www.democrats.org/party-platform.

[2] Reid Wilson, “Dems Hit New Low in State Legislatures,” The Hill, Nov. 18, 2016.

[3] Thomas Groome, “To Win Again, Democrats Must Stop Being the Abortion Party,” New York Times, March 27, 2017.
[4] Jonathan Martin, “At a ‘Unity’ Stop in Nebraska, Democrats Find Anything But,” New York Times, April 21, 2017.
[5] Charles Camosy, “Democrats Could Destroy the GOP—If Only They Would Welcome Antiabortion Liberals,” Washington Post, March 21, 2016.

[6] Philip Bump, “How America Feels about Abortion,” Washington Post, April 24, 2017.

[7] Ben Kamisar and Reid Wilson, “Dem Campaign Chief Vows No Litmus Test on Abortion,” The Hill, July 31, 2017.
[8] Laura Bassett, “Democratic Party Draws a Line in the Sand on Abortion Rights,” Huffington Post, April 21, 2017.
[9] “Opportunities to Include Pro-Life Democrats and Reinvigorate the Party: Steps the DNC Can Take to Include Pro-Life Democrats,” Democrats for Life: https://www.democratsforlife.org/index.php/big-tent.

[10] Democrats for Life, Federal Advisory Board: https://www.democratsforlife.org/index.php/about-us/advisory-boards.

[11] Clare Foran, “What Pro-Life Democrats Want from the DNC,” The Atlantic, June 28, 2017.

[12] Democrats for Life, “Protecting Unborn Children and Pregnant Women,” https://www.democratsforlife.org/images/stories/pdfs/20-Week_Ban__Support_-_Summary_.pdf.

[13] Fenit Nirappil, “For Both Sides of Abortion Debate, Unusually High Stakes in Virginia Governor’s Race,” Washington Post, Sept. 11, 2017.

Patricia Miller is a senior correspondent for Religion Dispatches, a former editor of Conscience, and the author of Good Catholics: The Battle over Abortion in the Catholic Church.

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