“Pro-Life Democrat”: A Contradiction in Terms?

Attention Californians: TCT’s founding editor-in-chief, Robert Royal, will be in the Golden State later this month. Here’s Bob’s schedule, with a couple of links for more information (and more to come): Sacramento Catholic Forum, noon on Thursday February 18; Kolbe Academy & Trinity Prep, Napa CA, 7:00 PM on Friday February 19; University of Santa Barbara, Catholic Chaplaincy, 6:30 PM Monday February 22; and Claremont McKenna College, 4:00 PM Tuesday February 23.

In a previous column, I wrote about pro-life Catholics who vote Democratic because of stereotypes of Republicans as opposed to civil rights and solidarity with the poor, in spite of contrary evidence from history.

Another common view, not just among Catholics, is that Democrats are “the abortion party.” Is this also a stereotype? Especially for those of us who know pro-lifers who consistently vote Democratic, it seems a blanket generalization. But the tendencies during the Obama administration offer grounds for the generalization.

Are there any pro-life appointees within the present administration? Or has a “litmus test” been consistently applied in the appointment of cabinet members, nomination of judgeships, appointment of leaders of Federal agencies, etc.?

Should there be any doubt, the 2012 Democratic Party Platform spells out that “litmus test”:

The Democratic Party strongly and unequivocally supports Roe v. Wade and a woman’s right to make decisions regarding her pregnancy, including a safe and legal abortion, regardless of ability to pay. We oppose any and all efforts to weaken or undermine that right. Abortion is an intensely personal decision between a woman, her family, her doctor, and her clergy; there is no place for politicians or government to get in the way.

This platform also supports some social changes that might make abortion less frequent. But there is no question: The right to procure an abortion is absolute, set in stone, so to speak. Just how does a sincere pro-life Democrat deal with such a stark pro-abortion position?

Perhaps the label “pro-abortion party” became prominent in 2010 in the aftermath of Democratic Rep. Bart Stupak’s weak attempt to keep abortion out of Obamacare, by declaring that Obama had agreed to sign Executive Order 13535, applying the Hyde Amendment, which restricts federal funding of abortion, in Obamacare. Obama signed the order, which did not have the force of law; and thus the main roadblock to passage of the Affordable Care Act was removed. ACA became the law of the land.

Stupak resigned soon afterwards, and the Democrats sustained considerable losses in the Congressional elections that year. Fourteen pro-life Democrats either retired from Congress or were defeated by Republicans; and Republicans gained control of the House of Representatives.

A minority within the minority party
A minority within the minority party

That executive order, which was negotiated to overcome the impasse about Obamacare, turned out to be just a strategic dodge. Bart Stupak, realizing that he had been hoodwinked, complained that the 2012 HHS mandate requiring private health insurance plans to include coverage for contraceptive drugs, sterilizations and abortion-inducing drugs violated Obama’s agreement: “I am perplexed and disappointed that, having negotiated the executive order with the president, not only does the HHS mandate violate the executive order but it also violates statutory law.”

On the individual level, no broad generalizations can be made. Polls indicate that a sizable minority of Democrats describe themselves as pro-life. In a 2013 Gallup poll, almost a third (29 percent) of Democrats identified themselves as “pro-life” (as compared to 67 percent of Republicans in that same poll). But this claim to be “pro-life” does not necessarily imply complete opposition to abortion. It may include exceptions for rape, incest, or threats to the life of the mother, and/or restrictions of abortion to twenty weeks or less of a pregnancy.

The most visible organization of pro-life Democrats is the DFLA (Democrats for Life of America). This organization no doubt includes many members completely against abortion, but its aims, working in the context of liberal fellow Democrats, are necessarily indirect and subdued. Major objectives include maternity leaves, parental consent for minors seeking abortion, 24-hour waiting periods, ultrasound requirements for women considering abortion, and Obamacare support for pregnancy.

In the House of Representatives DFLA has lobbied for the defunding of Planned Parenthood, for the Pain-Capable Unborn Protection Act (HR 36), for the No Taxpayer Funding of Abortion Act (H.R. 7), for the Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act (H.R. 3504), and for defeat of an amendment to the 21st Century Cures Act (H.R. 6), which would allow funding of abortion through NIH.

DFLA puts pressure on Democrats in Congress via a rating system, with regard to their support of pro-life bills or provisions. Unfortunately, only a few Democrats get 100 percent – two Senators, Donnelly and Manchin, and two House Members, Lipinski and Peterson.

On the one hand, it is good to know that there are at least a minority of “card-carrying” Democrats actively trying to advocate for life within a wholly unsympathetic framework. On the other hand, you have to wonder whether they are not involved in a Sisyphean task – like a Mafia member remaining in the Mafia to minimize crime and cruelty, and make the Mafia more humane.

The United Sates is at present one of the most abortion-permissive countries in the world. Many Democrats, following the lead of Bernie Sanders, want to imitate Europe in becoming socialist. Would they also want to imitate most European countries in restrictions on abortion (usually at twelve weeks)? Probably not.

But the right to life is the most basic of all rights, and the indispensable foundation for all the multiple rights Democrats pride themselves on supporting.

The multiple attempts on the part of DFLA to minimize abortions are laudable, especially if you believe that it may be impossible to enforce laws that would make abortion illegal throughout the country. But pessimism about enforcement may be unwarranted. Gallup polls for the last ten years, with the exception of 2006, consistently indicate that slightly over 70 percent of Americans believe either that abortion should be prohibited completely, or allowed only under certain conditions.

The DFLA approach is geared to compromise – a necessity within the current Democratic party. A compromise about the “three exceptions” might make a few more Democrats pro-life. But support for a complete ban on elective abortions among Democrats? It’s like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.

Howard Kainz, Emeritus Professor at Marquette University, is the author of twenty-five books on German philosophy, ethics, political philosophy, and religion, and over a hundred articles in scholarly journals, print magazines, online magazines, and op-eds. He was a recipient of an NEH fellowship for 1977-8, and Fulbright fellowships in Germany for 1980-1 and 1987-8. His website is at Marquette University.