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Life Support?

Inside the battle over abortion’s place in the Democratic platform

On an oppressively hot Saturday morning last month, a handful of pro-life activists gathered outside of a Starbucks in suburban Virginia to strategize about how to influence the Democratic Party’s national platform. The meeting quickly turned into a support group of sorts, as the members justified the seeming contradiction inherent in pro-life Democrats. Jesse, a white 20-something who introduced himself as an “evangelical Christian running as fast as I can from the religious right,” seethed, “Republicans’ command and control over people’s lives hasn’t changed the reality of abortion.” Lee, a gruff, middle-aged Virginian, agreed, arguing that the most important bulwark against abortion is a stronger social safety net. “And if my taxes go up, I don’t care,” he said with a chuckle, dispelling any doubts that he might be a closet Republican.

In 2004, Democrats removed language from their platform calling for a reduction in the abortion rate. Abortion was still to be “safe, legal and rare,” but no longer “more rare,” as the plank had stated in 1996 and 2000. As with most platform tussles, the language here is a proxy war in a larger internecine face-off: What role should pro-life activists play in a pro-choice political party? Though their advocacy is welcomed by some Democrats as a way to broaden the party’s support, others see them threatening the party’s principles. “It’s been our view as Democrats that women should make their decisions based on their moral values,” says former NARAL president Kate Michelman. “The pro-life Democrats’ language is a means to an end, and the end is to limit abortion.”

The Starbucks meeting was organized by Democrats for Life, a small organization founded in 1999 with chapters in over 40 states. The meeting I attended in Virginia was one of a dozen the organization was holding across the country. I asked Kristen Day, Democrats for Life’s executive director, who convened the Virginia meeting, if Republicans wouldn’t do more to further her organization’s goals. Didn’t they pass the partial-birth abortion ban, add two presumably anti-Roe votes to the Supreme Court, and ban federal funding to overseas NGOs that provide or promote abortion services? “Republicans do nothing to help pregnant women who are facing pregnancy,” Day replied. Many women don’t have the resources to sustain a healthy pregnancy, let alone a child, she argued. “If you make abortion illegal, what are these women going to do?”

As Day sees it, while Republicans pontificate on the evils of abortion, it is Democratic policies--expanding healthcare and access to prenatal resources--that have proven effective in reducing abortion rates. If a voter’s top priority is reducing abortion, Day says, she should vote Democratic.

Unlike many other pro-life activists, Democrats for Life deemphasizes Roe v. Wade. A repeal “wouldn’t really do a whole lot” to reduce abortion, Day told me. The group decided to ignore Roe altogether in their platform proposal, assuming the party would support the case no matter what. Instead, they chose to focus on promoting an abortion reduction plank. “Once Roe is in [our proposal],” said Lee, “they just stop listening to us.”

Though the American public has been slimly in favor of abortion rights in recent decades, they have hesitations. When Gallup asked voters this year whether they support legal abortion in “all circumstances,” “certain circumstances” or “no circumstances,” a majority of respondents placed themselves in the middle category. But when Gallup gave respondents more options, splitting the middle category into either “under most” or “under few” circumstances, 40 percent of total respondents choose the latter.

Day argues that Democrats could win these voters without sacrificing the party’s core values. She contends that many proposals that would logically flow from an abortion reduction plank would find support in the pro-choice community, such as forbidding insurance companies from classifying pregnancy as a pre-existing condition, which would make coverage more accessible for pregnant women. Many, though not all, support contraception, a non-starter on the pro-life right. Yet other proposals draw the ire of pro-choice activists: granting fetuses healthcare coverage, encouraging ultrasounds for women considering abortion, requiring “informed consent” forms from women seeking abortions. “I’m really offended that they treat women as though they are cavalierly making this decision,” says Kathy Kneer, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Affiliates of California. “It’s just patently offensive.”

Still, as it makes gains in more conservative districts, the Democratic Party is increasingly welcoming of pro-life candidates. Two of its most recent electoral successes--special election victories by Travis Childers in Mississippi and Don Cazayoux in Louisiana--were pro-life campaigns. And in the last few years, a flurry of Democratic-sponsored abortion reduction measures have been proposed in Congress, such as the “Reducing the Need for Abortion and Supporting Parents Act” and the “Pregnant Women Support Act.”

But when it comes to the platform, pro-life Democrats face strong resistance from other corners of the party. “These kind of efforts are perennial,” says Ramona Oliver, communications director for Emily’s List. “They’re based on the assumption that Democrats’ position isn’t in the mainstream, and that’s just wrong. They’ve not succeeded in curtailing Democrats’ principles, and I don’t think they will in the future.”

To many pro-choice activists, pro-life Democrats are little more than wolves in sheep’s clothing, luring the party away from their core values. “We need to restore first principles,” says former NARAL President Michelman. She compares the issue of abortion to tax cuts or global warming. “On those issues, the party wouldn’t go out of its way to take an opposite side and give it credibility. But for some reason, women’s rights are the first ballast to be cast overboard.”

Like most platform disputes, this debate tends to get semantic. But it illustrates the fundamental disagreements within the party that may be impossible to bridge. “[S]uggesting ... that given the choice, having a baby is a more moral choice than abortion, will be understood for what it is: condescending and sexist,” Michelman and Frances Kissling wrote in a Salon op-ed in July. Michelman supports language that pledges to reduce the “need for abortion,” implicitly acknowledging the reasonableness of abortion in certain circumstances. Day, on the other hand, tells me “there is never a need for abortion,” and she wants the party to emphatically state that its goal is to reduce the total number of abortions.

Last week, the platform drafting committee accepted submissions from meetings like Day’s all across the country. Over the course of the next two days, the 186-member platform committee, on which pro-life advocates such as Reverend Tony Campolo are strongly outnumbered, will be finalizing a draft to recommend to the national convention. Though Barack Obama has sponsored legislation that helps reduce unwanted pregnancies, he has remained publicly silent on the platform dispute itself. And national Democrats appear particularly wary of offending feminists, many of whom are still angry over Hillary Clinton’s defeat.

Even if, as seems likely, Day and her fellow activists lose this battle, and “safe, legal, and rare” remains the Democrats’ official abortion stance, ongoing outreach efforts to religious voters and swelling ranks of pro-lifers in Congress mean that the abortion-reduction message will likely persist. If 2008 isn’t Day’s year, she and other pro-life Democratic activists will be back in 2012. “I truly believe my party will be the one to solve this issue,” she says. Has Day ever thought about leaving the Democratic Party? “Not for a minute.”

Eric Zimmermann is a web intern at The New Republic.