“You care about that child until it’s born, and then you stop caring about that child. You’re not willing to support that child.” Pro-life Democrat and Seattle resident Patrick Day says this is the most common reaction he gets from his fellow Democrats when they learn he is pro-life. But Day is not alone. His experiences as a pro-life Democrat represent a growing divide within the Democratic Party on the issue of abortion.
Internal debates about abortion have intensified as the Democratic Party rebrands itself in the wake of its 2016 losses. There are many explanations for this sudden rift within the party, ranging from the Democratic National Committee’s new approach to reaching religiously motivated voters, calls for the party to shy away from identity politics, or the fact that pro-life Democrats who feared speaking out in the past now feel compelled to make their voices heard.
Pro-life Democrats should be welcomed into the party because they have the opportunity to allow the party to cast a wider net amongst integral house and senate races. While pro-choice members of the party worry that bringing pro-life voting members into the party would deemphasize the importance of women’s rights, it could mean the rebirth of a stable Democratic Party. Furthermore, pro-life Democrats do not simply want to restrict abortion; they also want to see an increase in supportive services available for families. As a result, welcoming them into the party would mean greater support for family services, helping all Democrats and all Americans.
A History of Conflict
Abortion became a politically polarizing issue at the beginning of second-wave feminism in the 1980s. As Americans sought a party that represented them on all issues, pro-choice voters tended to gravitate to the left, while pro-life voters went to the right. One explanation of this divide centers around separation of church and state. After the Supreme Court legalized abortion in Roe v. Wade, the Catholic Church became more involved in politics. As this occurred, many who found themselves in favor of a total and complete separation of church and state, tended to lean left and were in favor of abortion, while followers with intertwining religious and political beliefs leaned right.
The Republican Party’s shift on women’s rights also contributed to this partisan divide on abortion. In the 1970s, many Republicans ardently supported the Equal Rights Amendment, but the politics of the 1980s led Republicans to swiftly abandon many of their policies on women’s rights. As Democrats continued to champion women’s rights, including reproductive rights, pro-choice voters drifted to the left. Amidst this partisan divide, many pro-life voters remained in the Democratic Party, but most of these pro-life Democrats went silent about their beliefs for fear of backlash from their fellow Democrats.
Pro-Life and Pro-Choice Democrats
The debate over abortion is characterized by a fundamental disagreement about when a life is a life, and whose life abortion policies protect.
Pro-choice Democrats consider abortion an issue of health care, women’s rights, and economics. These voters generally believe that life does not begin at conception and that being pro-choice means caring for the life of the mother and protecting opportunities for women to advance in society. While these Democrats view abortion as an emergency method of family planning, they believe individuals should be able to choose when to have children. Many pro-choice Democrats feel that being a Democrat and being pro-choice are mutually exclusive. They believe the rights of economic opportunity and prosperity, access to education, women’s equality, and healthcare can only be guaranteed by giving women the option of safe and legal abortions.
Pro-life Democrats see abortion not as a health care or economic issue, but rather a moral dilemma between life and death. How can the Democratic Party, they argue, the party of the vulnerable, work hard to protect lives at home and abroad but not consider the lives of the unborn? Pro-life Democrats argue that being pro-life and a Democrat are not mutually exclusive. Rather, they argue Democrats should value all lives, which include the unborn. Pro-life Democrats, however, do believe that significant changes need to be made in family policies to incentivize women to choose life. This means that women need unyielding access to healthcare for mother and child, paid family leave, and increased assistance for higher education, among other policies that economically and socially empower women to have and raise children whatever stage of their life they are in.
Pro-Life Democrats: Then and Now
Despite the efforts of some pro-choice Democrats to recognize pro-life Democrats in the party, many pro-life voters remain in the shadows for fear of the backlash they would face from fellow Democrats. As the Democratic Party tries to reset and reestablish itself as a winning party, many pro-life Democrats like Patrick Day are now speaking out. “As a party, we’re trying to figure out who we are again, and so who is a part of us and who is not,” Day told the HPR. “Pro-life Democrats have become one of the targets of a group of people that maybe are considered unacceptable within the party, and that’s a shame to me because I feel like we have a lot to offer.” Day believes the time has finally come for the Democratic Party to represent its pro-life members, largely thanks to the efforts of party leaders.
Among the reasons pro-life Democrats are now speaking out is because they are tired of Republicans acting as though they represent the entire pro-life agenda, but then voting against establishing supportive services to help mothers who choose life. Pro-life Democrats believe that is where their personal values and Democratic ideologies work best together. Day posed the question: “If you believe, as you often hear from a pro-life Republican, this [abortion] is like a holocaust, if you believe that, what amount of financial resources [and] whatever other resources we have would you be willing to put to bear to solve the problem?” Day said pro-life Democrats are different from pro-life Republicans because they actually vote to establish services that support women in choosing life. This is because, according to Day, pro-life Democrats want to actually see change occur to encourage families to choose life, rather than the pro-life Republicans who say they want to ban abortion but then vote against policies that would implore women to choose life. This distinction could give pro-life Democrats more opportunities to be welcomed into the party.
Pro-Life Democrats Can Win Elections
Many pro-life Democrats argue that one reason Democrats lose is because they don’t pay attention to pro-life members of the party. When State Representative John Bel Edwards ran for governor of Louisiana in 2015, many called it a long shot, since Democrats rarely win there. Yet, in a state where lawmakers have routinely attempted to limit abortion access and Planned Parenthood funding, Edwards won by over 10 percentage points. When voting for Edwards, Louisianans knew he was pro-life. Various campaign ads, including one where the Edwards’s wife Donna discusses her husband’s pro-life values, openly flaunted his pro-life stance.
Edwards has since signed many pro-life bills into law, including a mandatory 72-hour waiting period before having an abortion. These pro-life positions are working in favor of Edwards. According to an April poll by Morning Consultant, he retains one of the highest approval ratings for a governor. Edwards’ success shows that by supporting pro-life Democrats, the Democratic Party could win even in deep red states.
If the Democratic party made a greater effort to welcome pro-life Democrats into the party, they would see results. “And the problem is, we’re a minority party right now. We have the lowest numbers since 1928, and 30 years ago we had a 292 seat majority in the US House. We had 125 pro-life Democrats. And now, we have three, about 190 … We’re 100 short of where we were 30 years ago,” executive director of Democrats For Life of America Kristen Day told the HPR. Day believes that if the party ran pro-life Democrats in various districts they could be turned blue. “In Georgia, if Ossoff would’ve ran as a pro-life Democrat, he may have swung that five percent, and that state would be in blue hands right now.”
Beyond the 2016 Election
Still nursing their wounds from Hillary Clinton’s loss, the DNC faces a hard choice: do they welcome pro-life candidates or favor candidates who share the party’s pro-choice position? In a recent interview with Chuck Todd on Meet the Press, Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi (D – Calif.) said “of course” one can be both a Democrat and pro-life. Pelosi’s Senate counterpart Senator Charles Schumer (D – N.Y.) offered similar comments a few days later, saying although the party is staunchly pro-choice, it is a “big tent party.” These comments from Democratic leaders indicate the party is ready to welcome pro-life Democrats.
“All members of the party are welcome in the party,” DNC Vice Co-Chair Michael Blake told the HPR. “They are reflections and conversations around life and choice and [abortion is] an individual decision. The reality is that we all have our own beliefs in the party.” Blake also pointed to the work of pro-life Democrats such as Senator Tim Kaine (D – Va.). Personally, Kaine may hold pro-life values, but his 100 percent pro-choice voting record as determined by NARAL pro-choice America indicates a politically pro-choice stance. However, many Democrats worry that if the party begins to celebrate pro-life Democrats in order to win key conservative elections, many Democrats who personally hold pro-life views but are politically pro-choice may change the way they vote.
The reason the party is increasingly welcoming to pro-life Democrats may be because they want to win. Democrats have not had a majority in the House of Representatives since 2010, and haven’t passed major legislation since Obamacare, which only passed Congress when some limitations of federal funding were placed on abortion. For months, Democrats have been trying to figure out where they went wrong. While access to safe and legal abortion has been an important platform issue for Democrats over the last few election cycles, they have been counting on their voters to consistently support pro-choice candidates without thinking about whether or not voters themselves are pro-choice. Continuing to run pro-choice candidates could be keeping the Democratic Party from appealing to many moderate voters who find themselves at odds with the party over abortion. Blake believes that pro-choice voters need to open their arms to everyone in the Democratic Party. Blake said that being pro-life does not make one less of a Democrat, telling the HPR, “The reality is, you’re never going to meet any Democrat that you agree on all issues with. The reality is, are we advancing the cause of opportunity and inequity and what we need to be talking more about is how are we united? … What we understand is a welcoming space in the party for everybody.”
But what about Democrats who don’t want to see their time and money devoted to candidates who do not support a woman’s right to choose? What about voters who believe it’s impossible to support be a Democrat and be pro-life? In a recent opinion piece for Vox, NARAL pro-choice America President Ilyse Hogue wrote, “The basic fact is that as a party, Democrats can’t fight Trump without women. Because women are fundamental to the resistance, but also because repressing women is fundamental to Trump’s worldview and his power.” Hogue believes that Democrats will lose voters and organizing support if they move the party towards pro-life candidates, as those most affected by abortion issues are the crusaders leading the fight for the Democratic Party against President Trump. Hogue also writes that in order to favor women’s equality, one must be pro-choice. According to Hogue, if Democrats want to be the party leading the fight on women’s equality, they have to give unwavering support for choice.
Maybe the first step in building bridges across the choice debate within the Democratic Party is by changing the way we talk about choice. “I generally call pro-life anti choice, and I think we need to change back that name because in many ways I think Democrats are pro-life” former DNC vice chair candidate Liz Jaff told the HPR. “We are pro-education, free education, college, healthcare want you to have a good life.” Jaff believes the Democratic Party has the responsibility to shape the conversations about choice. Then, Jaff says, Democrats can have a true conversation about choice.
Where Pro-Life Democrats Stand Today
Pro-life Democrats believe the way to make individuals choose life is by providing them with the services they will need if they have a child. These services include paid family leave, child care assistance, higher education grants to finish school, and affordable health care, among others. While these programs would re-shape the way we think about and handle unplanned pregnancies, at present, these options remain unavailable. So how can Democrats advocate for these programs that incentivize choosing life when many of them don’t currently exist to help those alive now? How can Democrats convince families to choose life when being pregnant is considered a pre-existing condition according to the GOP’s health care reform plan? Before they address the issues of persuading individuals to choose life, Democrats must protect those at risk of not having their pregnancy covered by insurance today and tomorrow.
Nevertheless, the Democratic Party, as Schumer described it, is a “big tent party.” As the party championing inclusion, there must be a place for both those who identify as pro-choice and pro-life to join. However, electoral votes do not make up for the life saving access to safe and legal abortions that millions of Americans so desperately need and advocates continue to fight for. As such, the concept of welcoming pro-life Democrats and possibly effectively reversing full reproductive choice should not be taken lightly and requires further conversation within the Democratic party to reconcile their different views. But if Democrats want to address family issues in the upcoming election cycle, they will need the support of all Democrats. With the support of pro-life members Democrats could see a win for family services and major electoral gains across the country.