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Finding The Right Words For Abortion

Last week I wrote about pro-life Democrats’ efforts to add abortion reduction language to the party’s platform. On Saturday, the platform committee released a draft:

The Democratic Party strongly and unequivocally supports Roe v Wade and a woman's right to choose a safe and legal abortion, regardless of ability to pay, and we oppose any and all efforts to weaken or undermine that right. The Democratic Party also strongly supports affordable family planning services and comprehensive age-approproiate sex education which empowers people to make informed choices and live healthy lives. We also recognize that such health care and education help reduce the number of unintended pregnancies and thereby also reduce the need for abortion. The Democratic Party also strongly supports a woman's decision to have a child by ensuring access to and availability of programs for pre- and post-natal health care, parenting skills, income support, and caring adoption programs." [Emphasis added].

This strikes a delicate compromise--and it seems to have worked. The first sentence strongly supports abortion rights--most notably, it does not call for abortion to be “more rare,” as the platform had in 1996 or 2000, nor does it include the Clintonian phrase "safe, legal, and rare.” But the last sentence is entirely new and approaches what might be called common ground: an affirmation by the party of a woman’s “decision to have a child.” Thus far, the pro-choice activists I’ve spoken with seem very content: “It’s absolutely the right thing to say,” Kate Michelman, former President of NARAL told me.

What’s interesting is that pro-life Democrats are encouraged as well. Sojourners, a progressive Christian magazine, sponsored a conference call Tuesday of moderate Christians who were cautiously enthusiastic about the language. Jim Wallis, editor of Sojourners and author of God’s Politics, praised the party for having reached out to him and others with phone calls and email exchanges “almost every day” in the weeks leading up to the drafting. It’s “less than we wanted but more than we expected,” said Tony Campolo, a pastor and professor at Eastern University, as well as a member of the platform committee. Joel Hunter, an Orlando megachurch pastor, seemed most enthusiastic: “Obama’s campaign and the Democratic Party have taken a historic and courageous step toward empowering women to give them an expanded range of choices and saving babies' lives,” he said.

During negotiations, I’m told, many pro-lifers wanted the platform to urge a reduction in the total number of abortions without saying there was a “need for abortion.” (As I mentioned in my piece, the single word “need” is a dividing line between pro-choicers and moderate pro-lifers. Without that qualifier, pro-choicers consider abortion-reduction language to be a moral condemnation of abortion.) But after moderate organizations like Third Way, which acted as a liaison between pro-life Democrats and traditional pro-choice organizations, made clear that was not possible, the “need” language was adopted alongside the “decision to have a child” phrase as the final compromise. (The “need” language was certainly not ideal for pro-lifers, but it was considered a sizeable improvement from the 2004 platform, which did not address abortion reduction at all.)

In one final semantic quarrel, Tony Campolo regrets the party didn’t do more to recognize the moral dimension of abortion. He wishes the party had included language respecting the “conscience” of those who oppose abortion and welcoming them into the party, which Democrats have done previously. (In 2000, for example, part of the platform read: “The Democratic Party is a party of inclusion. We respect the individual conscience of each American on this difficult issue, and we welcome all our members to participate at every level of our party.”)

But there was a logic behind excluding this. Democratic officials close to the negotiations wanted to offer a positive affirmation of one of the pro-life camp’s goals--more support for pregnant women to carry their child to term--without adding language that could be interpreted as condescending. (We respect your conscience, but you’re wrong is one way pro-lifers could take it.) While Democrats have usually framed the choice issue by defending the right to abortion, affirming childbirth was a fairly non-controversial addition.

An interesting aspect of the platform decision is that pro-choice leaders, I'm told, were genuinely interested in making the party more palatable to evangelical leaders. That this compromise would get public support from religious Democrats almost certainly factored into the pro-choicers’ willingness to bargain. The language is not officially final until it is ratified at the national convention, and pro-lifers will probably make some nominal efforts to address their lingering doubts, especially in regard to the “conscience” language. But for the most part, this has been a success for the platform committee and the Obama campaign. “It’s a big difference from 2004,” Kristen Day, Executive Director of Democrats for Life, told me. “And it’s a big difference that the committee reached out to us. It shows that we’re accepted into the party.”