Op-Ed: To right their political ship, Democrats need to welcome pro-life liberals

Pro-life demonstrators stand in front of pro-choice counter-demonstrators in front of the U.S. Supreme Court on Jan. 22, 2004.
(Gerald Herbert / Associated Press)

The Democratic Party is in serious trouble. It has lost more than 900 state legislative seats, 12 governors, 69 House seats and 13 Senate seats over the last decade, and a recent poll indicates that it has a lower approval rating than President Trump.

To right this political ship, it must recapture pro-life liberals such as my mother, who was a loyal Democrat until 1996, when President Clinton vetoed the bill banning partial-birth abortions.

The party lost her. And though it never lost me, it sure has done its best to push me out along with all the other pro-life Democrats in the United States, some 20 million in number.


Abortion activists claim that the fetus is just a mass of tissue, and that women are too weak to succeed without abortion. Not only do pro-life Democrats accept the settled science that shows the prenatal child is a human organism, we know that with the right support, women are more than up to the challenge of difficult or unplanned pregnancies.

We also support a living wage, Medicare, paid family leave, affordable childcare and worker protections provided by strong unions. And we strongly resist a small-government Republican Party that refuses to support women and mothers.

Because of our views on abortion, many of us are intimidated into silence. Indeed, we get stronger pushback from Democratic leadership than from Republicans.

Yet because of our views on abortion, many of us are intimidated into silence. Indeed, we get stronger pushback from Democratic leadership than from Republicans.

I first saw this dynamic in 1990, when I moved to Minnesota and pro-lifers were shouted down at the first Democratic caucus I attended. But I felt it most acutely when I ran for Congress in 2002. Planned Parenthood’s executive director spread falsehoods about my position on government funding for contraceptives. Party activists I had worked with only months before explained that they couldn’t vote for me or donate to my campaign. Even my Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee team hid my pro-life stance.

As a result, the following year, I joined Democrats for Life of America. I’ve since learned that a large number of Democratic legislators hide their pro-life positions in order to get endorsed and raise money. Many others are under tremendous pressure to stay silent, including Muslims, women of color and, yes, members of the white working class.

The party’s leadership, located largely in pro-choice bubbles on the coasts, claims that support for abortion is a political winner. This is simply not true, especially given that seven in 10 Americans want to ban abortion in most cases after week 12 of pregnancy. Tellingly, women support restrictions on late-term abortion at higher rates than men.

Democratic politicians shouldn’t make sweeping statements about what “the country” believes without paying careful attention to regions. While polls consistently show that Americans are pretty evenly divided on abortion, opposition in the Midwest is 27% higher than the national average. In the South, it’s 35% higher.

If the Democratic Party is to become a truly national party — one that can win consistently outside of urban, coastal America — it has no choice but to welcome people with different views on abortion. The number of voters who cite abortion as their single-most-important issue is the highest in the history of Gallup’s poll. This group is dominated by pro-lifers.

Thankfully, after the Trump election, Democratic leaders seem to understand that they have a crisis on their hands. Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez has undertaken a “unity tour” with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), with both party leaders acknowledging that any political math for a “50-state strategy” must include pro-life Democrats. And although NARAL and other pro-choice inquisitors pounced on Perez and got him to retract his position, a principle of openness to pro-lifers has been reiterated by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.).

During the 2016 campaign, Sanders rightly pointed out that Planned Parenthood belongs to “the establishment,” implying that a litmus test on abortion would not be required by the new, exciting, growing edge of the party. There is a legitimate debate about abortion to have within the party, but the progressive Sanders wing is wise to separate the toxicity of that argument from the party’s central goals.

If the Democratic Party needs a litmus test, it should be economic justice and civil rights for all. The pro-life Democrat Hubert H. Humphrey said it best: “The moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped.”

Janet Robert is a founder of Progressive Talk Radio AM 950 Minneapolis and president of Democrats for Life of America.

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