DENVER — With the not insignificant exception of NARAL Pro-Choice America President Nancy Keenan, speakers at the 2008 Democratic National Convention have generally kept quiet about abortion, “the right that dare not speak its name.” A small but determined group of pro-life Democrats met downstairs at the Hotel Monaco to celebrate and try to build upon this tiny bit of progress.
The crowd that gathered for the Democrats for Life town hall meeting was mostly older, more than half female (including a grandmother in a “peace, love, DNC” tie dyed t-shirt), and eager to take the life issue back from the Republicans — if their own party will let them.
“We all can do more to reduce abortions,” Democrats for Life executive director Kristen Day said in her opening remarks. “The argument must go beyond legality. We can unite Americans, heal this nation, help women, and save babies.” Behind her stood Congressmen Lincoln Davis of Tennessee and Heath Shuler of North Carolina, both pro-life Democrats, and Bob Tuke, a Democratic Senate candidate from Tennessee who is pro-choice but supports the 95-10 initiative to lower the number of abortions committed in the United States.
But first up were speakers who aimed to remind this pro-life audience why they were Democrats. Alexia Kelley of Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good touted a study (PDF) purporting to show that many policies Democrats would be comfortable with reduce abortion rates: lifting the family cap for welfare recipients, increasing funding for the Women, Infants, and Children program, and more publicly funded childcare for working mothers.
Vincent Miller, an associate professor of theology at Georgetown University, argued that the party should consider support for “abortion reduction legislation” not simply as outreach for pro-life voters but to make Americans “think like Democrats.” Miller joked that John Paul II’s Evangelium Vitae could only be turned into a Republican campaign document “with significant editing.”
Miller cited the late pope’s criticisms of both moral relativism and excessive individualism, whereby families “are left alone with their problems,” as contributors to abortion on demand. “Republicans have eroded the notion that government can do anything with one exception: values,” he said. Without giving voters “moral political agency,” Miller argued, “values voting is reduced to expressing identity.” Pro-life Democrats, he maintained, could “challenge the notion that government can do nothing” and illustrate “government’s positive contribution to the common good.”
Congressman Davis attacked the Republicans for using abortion as a wedge issue while doing little to protect the unborn. “Take the politics out of abortion,” he drawled. “Don’t we owe that to Americans?” “Mmm-hmm”, replied the audience. “Hate needs to stop from both sides,” Davis continued. “From those who support a woman’s right to choose and from those who believe that life begins at conception and must be defended at all cost.”
Pro-choice Democrat Bob Tuke said he agreed with his colleagues that adoption should be encouraged as an alternative to abortion. “We need to take care of women who are pregnant and children who are born,” argued the former Tennessee leader of Veterans for Kerry. “I want all children to be born… Don’t abandon these children in the delivery room.”
Democratic pro-lifers frequently invoked a variation of their pro-choice colleague Barney Frank’s memorable barb: Republicans believe that life begins at conception and ends at birth. “We need to protect life not from conception to birth but from conception to natural death,” said Congressman Shuler. “[Democrats] need a lot of work on the first nine months, but Republicans have a lot more work to do from birth to natural death.”
Shuler mentioned attending a Baptist church with Bill Clinton on Sunday when the sermon topic was abortion. He quoted the preacher as saying that supporting women in crisis pregnancies was the most important work for pro-lifers to do. “The president looked at me and said, ‘Heath, that is the answer.'”
The real star of the show was Sen. Bob Casey Jr. of Pennsylvania. His father was denied a speaking slot at the Democratic National Convention sixteen years ago because of his pro-life convictions. The younger Casey was allowed to speak on Tuesday, mentioning his disagreement with Barack Obama on abortion exactly once. Yet when the senator entered the room, he was received as a conquering hero. As Day mentioned that he won by the biggest margin of any newly elected senator in Pennsylvania history, a pro-life delegate leaned over to me and added with a smile, “Against a three-term (sic) incumbent.”
Casey said that if a woman has a right to choose abortion under the law, pro-lifers must make it practical for them to carry the child to term instead. “If you’re not helping [a pregnant woman], and you’re not trying to help her, you’re not pro-life!” he exclaimed, allowing that “neither party is doing enough.”
Not everyone present was willing to accept going to church with Shuler, giving Casey a convention speaking slot, or even voting to expand SCHIP as sufficient proof of the party leadership’s openness to pro-lifers. The Democratic politicians were peppered with questions about the nominee’s abortion record, the Freedom of Choice Act, and Obama’s statement that he didn’t want to punish one of his daughters with an unplanned child. They responded by reiterating their disagreements with Obama, defending his temperament, and criticizing the Republicans for not realizing that raising the minimum wage is a pro-life issue. Davis and Shuler predicted that the Freedom of Choice Act couldn’t pass the House.
Even they had to concede that the Democratic Party still had an abortion problem, complaining that the revised platform language did not recognize their dissent and that pro-life Democrats still had a long way to go.
The penultimate speaker, a black preacher from Washington, D.C., best illustrated the challenge. Arguing that abortion was caused by the pain women experience, he concluded, “And the ethnic group that is hurting the most is the one that supports your party the most.”