Protesting in Philadelphia.

Photographer: Jessica Kourkounis/Getty Images

The Loneliness of the Pro-Life Democrat

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a national affairs writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
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Kristen Day is not making progress. The executive director of Democrats for Life of America, she manned a booth at the Pennsylvania Convention Center, which features caucus meetings, presentations and lots of activists offering their wares to Democrats in Philadelphia for the big party convention.

Democrats strolled by, including more than a handful wearing pink Planned Parenthood T-shirts. Few stopped at Day's table, which featured a poster promoting paid parental leave, a higher minimum wage and "Medicare for all" -- but no mention of abortion.

"We're trying to appeal to Democrats, and we want them to talk to us," she explained.

"Safe, legal and rare" was the abortion-rights mantra of Bill Clinton in the 1990s. In her 2008 presidential run, Hillary Clinton said abortion should be “safe, legal and rare, and by rare, I mean rare.” Abortion “should not in any way be diminished as a moral issue,” she added.

But abortion is increasingly deemed a health-care issue by Democratic leaders, not a moral issue. The 2016 party platform makes no mention of "rare," and Clinton herself seems to have dropped the word from her political lexicon. Meanwhile, the number of pro-life Democrats in Congress has dwindled to a handful. Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia, whom Clinton selected to be her vice-presidential nominee, has suggested that he has personal qualms about abortion while compiling a 100 percent rating from Planned Parenthood.

It's hard to avoid the conclusion that the party's pro-choice components have consolidated power. There is little in the polls to support a more liberal posture on the issue. Since Gallup began tracking abortion in the 1970s, the main default position of Americans has been support for abortion "only under certain circumstances."  

According to a 2014 Pew Research survey, millennials hold similarly hedged views. In a 2015 CNN poll, Democrats' views on abortion ranged across: "legal under any circumstances" (48 percent), "legal under most circumstances" (19 percent), "legal under certain circumstances" (22 percent) and "illegal in all circumstances" (9 percent).

Despite the diversity of opinion, there is nonetheless a clear party line. "When we try to find Democratic fundraisers to help us raise money," Day said, "they say, 'Oh, we don't want to touch that.'"

In 1972, before abortion became a polarized partisan issue, more Republicans than Democrats supported legal abortion, according to Gallup. "It makes more sense for Republicans to be the pro-choice party and the Democrats to be the pro-life party," Day said, since Republicans object to government interference and Democrats are more inclined to protect the vulnerable. But that's not a view with much traction in American politics.

Abortion politics is unforgiving terrain.  "Two pro-lifers contacted me on Facebook," Day said. "One said I was going to hell. The other said the Democratic Party is evil."    

Democratic critics can be similarly unkind. "One Democratic friend said she was ashamed I was a Democrat," Day said. "The other said I'm un-American because I don't support taxpayer-funded abortions. You gotta have tough skin for this job."

Day, a 47-year-old former Capitol Hill aide, isn't winning this battle, but she hasn't lost it completely. The new platform doesn't endorse "safe, legal and rare," which carried an implicit moral judgment against abortion and a desire to curtail it. Democratic platforms haven't included the word "rare" in the abortion plank since 2004. But it still implies a desire for fewer abortions.

We recognize that quality, affordable comprehensive health care, evidence-based sex education, and a full range of family planning services help reduce the number of unintended pregnancies and thereby also reduce the need for abortions.

Reducing the need for abortions, which echoes language from the 2008 platform, is at least a backhand acknowledgment that abortion remains, in Clinton's apparently discarded locution, a "moral issue."

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net