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No womb for debate: do pro-life Democrats exist?

by Barnes, Fred
The New Republic, July 27, 1992

When Governor Robert Casey of Pennsylvania testified before the Democratic National Committee's platform hearings in Cleveland on May 18, he insisted that abortion on demand has become an official party position. That's "the perceptionand the reality," he said, and it's alienating many Democratic voters. The Platform Committee's co-chair, Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, said she'd never heard a Democrat advocate abortion on demand. OK, Casey fired back, if the party doesn't endorse abortion on demand, it should say so in the platform. But the eighteen-page document presented to the committee's final session in Washington on June 27 didn't say that. And so Maureen McCullough, oneof two Casey aides on the 196-member committee, proposed the addition of this sentence: "Democrats do not support abortion on demand and believe the number ofabortions should be reduced." She was booed and hissed, then cut off while defending her motion. Only five people seconded her motion (fifteen were required), and it died without being debated or voted on.

Such is the fate of efforts by pro-life Democrats: scorn followed by defeat. What's more, the party establishment now regards them as divisive and harmful to Democratic exploitation of the Republicans' anti-abortion stand. Onthe morning of Casey's appearance, Platform Committee members were summoned to ameeting to work out a strategy for dealing with him. Karen Chandler, a Casey, aide and committee member, says she was stunned to hear Pelosi say that Casey would distort the party's position on abortion. New York Mayor David Dinkins said Casey's testimony should be kept brief Talking points distributed to committee members advised them to point out, should anyone suggest Democrats aresplit on abortion, that it's Republicans who are divided on the issue. Before Casey spoke, Chandler says she was approached by a Democratic staffer who indicated that Casey's chances of addressing the convention hinged on whether moderated his testimony in Cleveland. Casey refused.

The Democratic Party, in its platforms, has been officially pro-choice for two decades. And since 1989, when the Supreme Court's Webster decision allowed restrictions on a woman's right to an abortion, it has steadily made the issue ahigher priority. Before 1989 the Democratic leadership in Congress didn't invokea party position on abortion. But in January House Speaker Tom Foley said congressional Democrats will legislatively guarantee abortion rights. Meanwhile all five Democratic presidential candidates appeared together, in tuxedos, at a January banquet of the National Abortion Rights Action League.

It was seeing the candidates at the NARAL event on TV that prompted Casey tobegin his crusade. He disputes the conventional wisdom that being aggressively, pro-choice helps Democrats (or Republicans, for that matter). The opposite is true, he says. Sure, polls show that Americans are pro-choice by a 3-to-2 marginor better, but that's only half the story. Most pro-choicers are queasy about abortion on demand, favor some restrictions, and don't automatically vote for pro-choice candidates. In fact, pro-life voters are more likely to vote based on the single issue of abortion. Thus, the electoral edge in many states goes tothe anti-abortion side. One more thing. Millions of these pro-lifers are Democrats. Casey insists the number of anti-abortion Democrats who vote Republican far exceeds the number of pro-choice Republicans who vote Democratic.He says abortion on demand drives away traditional working-class and ethnic Democrats, but doesn't attract many Republicans.

There's strong evidence for this. In 1988, in an ABC exit poll of 100,000 voters, one-third said abortion was the main issue affecting their vote. Of these, 57 percent voted for George Bush, the pro-life candidate. Webster hasn't made a difference. Casey cites his own re-election in 1990. His pro-choice Republican opponent, Barbara Hafer, ran ads showing the assault of a woman and nothing, accurately, that Casey opposes abortion even in cases of rape. Casey won by 1 million votes, 68 percent to 32 percent, the biggest marginin Pennsylvania history. The national press largely ignored his win. "If Casey, were a pro-choice Episcopalian, he'd be on the cover of time magazine," said hiscampaign manager, James Carville. The same year Anthony Celebrezze, the Democratic candidate for governor of Ohio, flipped from pro-life, to pro-choice and lost to a pro-life Republican, George Voinovich. In Kansas pro-life Democrat Joan Finney stuck to her position and beat a pro-choice Republican. And anti-abortion Republicans won the governorships of Michigan and Iowa.

Casey may be the most prominent pro-life Democrat. but he's not the only one. He has a few lonely colleagues. Roughly a quarter of the 266 House Democrats and a half-dozen Democratic governors are pro-life, but few are eager to discuss abortion, much less lead a national fight on the issue. Watching the trend of their party's elite, they've grown dispirited. CongressmanJohn LaFalce of New York collected fifty Democratic signatures on a letter in 1989 urging party chairman Ron Brown to keep Democrats from becoming "the party of abortion." The letter produced nothing, and LaFalce figures that Casey's effort is in vain too. Casey sought signatures of House Democrats for a letter to the Platform Committee this year. He could round up only twenty-eight.

Casey's allies in Congress or statehouses are an odd mix of Roman Catholics,serious Protestants, Southern conservatives, and mavericks. Casey himself is a 60-year-old Catholic with eight children. Finney is also Catholic. In her governor's race in 1990, she was offered a ton of campaign money if she flip-flopped on abortion. She refused and won anyway. The anti-abortion views of Congressman David Bonior of Michigan were used against him in his race for House majority whip. He won, but only after promising not to oppose the leadership on abortion votes. He'd vote his conscience and do no more. Congressman Tim Penny of Minnesota says he feels "isolated" as a pro-life Democrat. LaFalce says he's sometimes treated as if he's a "neanderthal." Congressman Charles Stenholm of Texas claims that the party has no litmus test, but worries that the party's "extreme" view scares voters.

What makes Casey interesting is that he's neither a conservative nor a religious zealot. Instead, he makes both a liberal and a political case for opposing abortion. "The right to life must mean the right to a decent life," he told the Platform Committee. "We must rededicate ourselves to the things on which we all agree: comprehensive health care for mother and child, nutrition programs, family and medical leave, early intervention services for developmentally delayed children, Head Start, child care, and communities that are nurturing, safe, and drug-free." The Democratic Party "has always been the voice of the powerless and the voiceless - workers, women, minorities, the poor,the dispossessed. They have been our natural constituency." The unborn child, "the most powerless and voiceless member of the human family," should be added to the list, he said. "Until Democrats move to the middle on values issues, the defining one of which is abortion, they won't command a national majority."

National Democrats aren't buying this. They see Casey as a man with a problem, not a solution, and they've impeded him and his aides at every juncture. Before the platform hearings, Casey's staff was unable to get the names of committee members, which meant that Casey or his aides couldn't contact them. "Here I am the governor of one of the major states in the country and I couldn't get the list," he says. "And this is the party, that's supposed to be tolerant, open to dissent. Now we have a litmus test: if you're pro-life, you're out."

Every pro-life Democrat I've talked to agrees on once, thing: the abortionissue will benefit Bush, especially in a three-way race against two pro-choicers. "I felt the advantage was with Bush in a two-man race," says Casey. "Three-way, it cuts even more deeply" in his favor. "We've given voters no alternative except to vote Republican if they feel strongly on abortion," says Tim Penny. "The pro-choicers will be split between Clinton and Perot," saysJohn LaFalce.

What the Democratic abortion opponents are asking for is not an abandonment of the Democrats' position in favor of a woman's right to choose. What they wantis for the party merely to give up its extreme disinclination to say anything critical of abortion. Casey would like the party to say the number of abortions should be reduced and to endorse restrictions like parental consent. Short of those, he'd settle for a rejection of abortion on demand. Taking Casey's advice would put the party closer to what a majority of Americans believe. Makes sense,but there's no chance of it happening. This is one issue where the Republicans allow more open debate than the Democrats.

Copyright The New Republic Inc. 1992