Democrats and Abortion

Kelly Baker

With the Democratic convention in full swing, it is not surprising that journalists are weighing in on a variety of issues, especially abortion. Two pieces appeared today that explore the position of the party and the presumptive nominee, Barack Obama, on the issue. In Newsweek, George Wiegel argues that the Democrats are dodging this important issue:

Then there are the multiple confusions of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. In her "Meet the Press" appearance Aug. 24, Pelosi was asked by Tom Brokaw whether she agreed with Senator Obama's statements on abortion at Saddleback. Pelosi, declaring herself an "ardent, practicing Catholic," told Brokaw that "this is an issue that I have studied for a long time"—and then got herself into a deep muddle, in which she seemed to confuse St. Augustine with St. Thomas Aquinas (neither of whom, in any case, knew anything about modern embryology); misrepresented the settled (and scientifically informed) judgment of the Catholic Church on when life begins by declaring it an open question, and concluded by suggesting that none of this really makes a difference, because what the scientists, theologians, and philosophers say "... shouldn't have an impact on a the woman's right to choose." The Speaker then misrepresented the legal impact of Roe v. Wade, arguing that the Supreme Court hadn't created a right to "abortion on demand"—which will come as news to those on both sides of the ongoing debates over partial-birth abortion and other late-term abortion procedures, parental- and spousal-notifications laws and regulatory oversight of abortion clinics.

Democrats who had hoped to persuade a good number of evangelicals and Catholics to return to their traditional 20th-century political home in November 2008 cannot be very encouraged by such intellectual disarray on the part of their party's senior federal official. For more than three decades, the abortion license created by the high court in Roe v. Wade has been an important factor in determining American voting behavior—in more than a few instances, the decisive factor. Yet, judging by her performance on "Meet The Press" (which seemed to surprise the usually unflappable Tom Brokaw), the Democratic Speaker of the House of Representatives is as ill-informed on the scientific and legal facts involved in the abortion debate as she is of the teaching of the Catholic Church. Speaker Pelosi is, like most "ardent, practicing" Catholics, a great admirer of the late Pope John Paul II. Was John Paul wrong, one wants to ask Speaker Pelosi, when he wrote in the 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae [The Gospel of Life] that "abortion ... always constitutes a grave moral disorder, since it is the deliberate killing of an innocent human being"? Was he wrong when he further stated that this moral truth could be known by reason, and was thus a matter of grave concern to public policy?

While Wiegel points to the "intellectual disarray" of the party, Michael Sean Winters of Slate offers another interpretation: The Democrats are attempting to allow a plurality of opinions on abortion, while not compromising their pro-choice lineage. This strategy would allow for voters who want abortions "legal, safe, and rare" to find a home in the party, especially Catholic voters who are vehemently pro-life. Winters notes that Sen. Bob Casey Jr.'s address to the convention (when his father was denied this privilege in 1992 for being pro-life) and the selection of the Catholic Joe Bidden as Obama's running mate signals that Democrats are open to a new plank about abortion. The party, according to Winters, is seeking to show that it is no longer militantly pro-choice to attract those in the middle of the pro-life and pro-choice positions. He writes:

The trend among Catholic Democrats is not toward a doctrinaire pro-life or pro-choice position but instead toward what could be called "pro-choices," plural. They defend the legality of Roe, but they want to make sure that programs are in place to help women make the choice to carry the child to term, such as adequate and affordable pre- and postnatal care and a less-cumbersome adoption system. They also favor programs to reduce the need for abortions in the first place through better age-appropriate sex education and family-planning services. These proposals were part of a legislative effort to reduce the number of abortions led by Democrats in Congress, including pro-life Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio and pro-choice Rep. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut.

Barack Obama has warmed to this approach, altering the abortion plank in the Democratic Party platform. After affirming the party's unequivocal commitment to Roe, the platform asserts: "We also recognize that such health care and education help reduce the number of unintended pregnancies and thereby also reduce the need for abortions. 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." This language does not please some hard-core pro-choice activists because it implies a stigmatization of abortion, but it is difficult to portray oneself as championing women's reproductive freedom if you oppose such measures.

So, what do our blog readers think? Is the Democratic party in "disarray" about the issue of abortion or is this supposed confusion a strategy to highlight the importance of "pro-choices" to bring along evangelical and Catholic voters? How do y'all think the abortion issue is going to play out in the election this year? Will it be simply categorized as a "values" issue? Or will the nominees have to address this issue to win over voters? (I would love to hear analysis from our religion and politics junkies as well as from Mike on the characterization of Catholic voters.)


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