Democrats shift their approach on abortion

Times Staff Writer

Sensing an opportunity to impress religious voters -- and tip elections -- Democrats in Congress and on the campaign trail have begun to adopt some of the language and policy goals of the antiabortion movement.

For years, the liberal response to abortion has been to promote more accessible and affordable birth control as well as detailed sex education in public schools.

That’s still the foundation of Democratic policies. But in a striking shift, Democrats in the House last week promoted a grab bag of programs designed not only to prevent unwanted pregnancies, but also to encourage women who do conceive to carry to term.


The new approach embraces some measures long sought by antiabortion activists. It’s designed to appeal to the broad centrist bloc of voters who don’t want to criminalize every abortion -- yet are troubled by a culture that accepts 1.3 million terminations a year.

“It’s not as exciting as arguing,” said antiabortion activist Serrin Foster, president of Feminists for Life. “But it’s the best possible thing for women.”

The Reducing the Need for Abortions Initiative provides millions in new funds to:

* Counsel more young women in crisis to consider adoption, not abortion.

* Launch an ad campaign to inform needy women that they can receive healthcare and other resources if they are “preparing for birth.”

* Expand parenting education and medical services for pregnant women, in some cases by sending nurses to their homes.

* Offer day care at federal job-training centers to help new mothers become self-sufficient.

The initiative, part of a broader appropriations bill, passed the House with solid bipartisan support. A separate measure, still pending, calls for funding maternity and day-care centers on college campuses so pregnant students won’t feel they must have an abortion to stay in school.


Such efforts are aimed at alleviating the concerns women often cite to explain why they’ve turned to abortion: financial strain, fear of raising a baby alone, disruption to work and school.

“We are willing to talk about anything that helps women make good choices,” said Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.), co-chairwoman of the bipartisan Pro-Choice Caucus. Preventing unplanned pregnancies, she said, “is not the whole story.”

Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio, a Democrat who opposes abortion, goes even further. For the first time, he said, his party is sending a forceful message to conflicted women: “Bring the baby to term, and we’ll provide for you.”

The Senate will take up the spending package later this year. In the meantime, liberal stalwart Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) is working with staunch conservative Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) to mandate more support services for pregnant women carrying fetuses with genetic abnormalities, such as Down syndrome. Focus on the Family, an influential conservative ministry, praises that bill as “lifeaffirming.”

But conservatives also accuse Democrats of using abortion rhetoric to sell the right on traditional liberal priorities, such as healthcare funding. Democrats have rejected other ideas that conservatives consider highly effective in reducing abortions, such as requiring women to view ultrasound images of the womb.

“In terms of bridging the ideological gulf, you need to ask: Is this a two-way street?” said David K. DeWolf, a law professor at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Wash., who has advised antiabortion groups.


Rep. Mike Pence, a Republican from Indiana, sees hypocrisy in the fact that much of the new family planning funding will go to Planned Parenthood. The money can’t be used to terminate pregnancies -- it’s for birth control and gynecology services. But Pence says it’s ludicrous to send tax dollars to the nation’s largest abortion provider in the name of reducing abortions.

“That’s not a common ground I can accept,” Pence said.

From the left, too, the new strategy has drawn barbs. Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.) urges her party to stick to promoting contraception, instead of trying to sway women’s choices after they conceive.

“I don’t believe any woman decides between having an abortion or not on the basis of ‘Is there day care available?’ ” Slaughter said. “Our aim here is to let women know we can help them not get pregnant.”

Democratic strategists, however, say that message is too simplistic.

From a practical standpoint, increasing access to contraception will not eliminate abortion. Roughly half of all women who seek abortion said they were using some form of birth control, albeit inconsistently, the month they conceived. Some of the states, such as California, that have spent the most to improve access to family planning still have among the nation’s highest abortion rates.

From a political perspective, Democratic strategists warn that emphasizing birth control gives voters a bad impression -- “that Democrats are just about free love, not morality,” said Rachel Laser, an analyst for the progressive think tank Third Way.

She has been urging Democrats to embrace programs aimed at helping women in crisis keep their pregnancies, in an effort to show voters that “pro-choice” does not mean “pro-abortion.”


The leading Democratic presidential candidates are increasingly making that more nuanced case.

At a recent presidential forum, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York decried the failure of activists on both sides to work together to bring down the number of abortions. She repeated a mantra her husband made famous more than a decade ago: Abortion, she said, should be “safe, legal and rare.”

Then Clinton paused and added deliberately: “And by rare, I mean rare.”

At another forum, this one sponsored by Planned Parenthood, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois called a woman’s right to abortion “one of the most fundamental freedoms we have in this country.” But he also urged alliances across ideological lines to promote initiatives that value motherhood, such as paid maternity leave.

“If the argument is [too] narrow, oftentimes we lose,” Obama said.

Democrats first began field-testing this message in 2006. Candidates for governor in Ohio and Michigan made a point of talking about abortion reduction even as they supported abortion rights.

In one mailer, Ohio candidate Ted Strickland spoke of his desire to give all children “every opportunity to reach their God-given potential. This includes working together, across our differences, to reduce the need for and numbers of abortions.”

Both Strickland and Michigan incumbent Jennifer Granholm won their campaigns. Exit polls showed they did better than national Democrats among weekly churchgoers -- and much better among white evangelicals, who tend to be conservative on abortion.


“This approach is not going to all of a sudden bring the pro-life crowd over to the Democrats, but it creates an opening,” said Eric Sapp, a political consultant who helped craft the Michigan and Ohio campaigns. With the nation so closely split, even a small boost in support for the Democrats “could reshape the political landscape,” Sapp said.

The Rev. Joel Hunter symbolizes the potential.

An evangelical megachurch pastor in Florida, Hunter says he’s “very strongly pro-life.” He’s also disillusioned: The right has spent three decades on legislation and litigation, yet one in five pregnancies still ends in abortion.

This fall, Hunter plans to urge his congregation of 10,000 to support politicians who work hard to reduce abortions -- even if they don’t share the goal of protecting every single one of the unborn.

“It’s past time to reach out,” Hunter said. “There’s so much more that can be done without compromising our principles.”