The election of several pro-life Democrats in the November election may have marked a defining moment in the future of the pro-life movement in the party, the head of Democrats for Life of America says.
Election Day saw Democrat Bob Casey Jr., son of the late outspoken pro-life Pennsylvania governor and a pro-lifer himself, win a U.S. Senate seat from the Keystone State. In the House, a handful of Democratic pro-life candidates — including Heath Shuler of North Carolina and Joe Donnelly and Brad Ellsworth — also won. All of them were key to the Democrats taking control of the House and Senate.
Although the Democratic Party is still led by supporters of abortion rights who back the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, and although its platform says Democrats "stand proudly for a woman's right to choose," the tide could be turning to broaden the tent, says Kristen Day, executive director of Democrats for Life, an organization that works to promote pro-life causes in the party.
"I think it absolutely is a turning point," Day told Baptist Press. "Two years ago the Democratic Party really wasn't working with us. There was a lot of mistrust. People thought we were Republicans. [But] we worked very closely with the DCCC [Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee] this election. We coordinated in helping identify pro-life candidates. There was really much more openness and support for the pro-life candidates. I think it was very encouraging.
"The challenge we have is to not close the door and to keep it open and keep going on this road of really allowing people to vote their conscience and make their own statements on abortion and not have the party dictate it."
The victory by Democratic pro-life candidates comes on the heels of a book by Day, Democrats for Life: Pro-Life Politics and the Silenced Majority (New Leaf Press, 2006) released earlier this year. In it, she shows how the earliest feminists were pro-life and how over time the Democratic Party gradually embraced abortion rights. That culminated in 1992, when Bob Casey Sr., then the pro-life Democratic governor of Pennsylvania, was not allowed to speak at the Democratic National Convention reportedly because of his views.
"While many Democrats had left the party during the Reagan years, pro-life Democrats left in droves after 1992," Day writes. "...The next election cycle, Democrats lost 54 seats, including 34 incumbents and, for the first time in 40 years, control of the House of Representatives."
Elsewhere in the book, Day says plainly, "The Republican Party has embraced protecting the unborn and the Democrats have accepted the notion that abortion is a basic human right for women."
But Day hopes her party is changing.
During the Democratic primary in Pennsylvania earlier this year, party officials essentially cleared the field of any major candidates and allowed Casey to sail to the general election, where he faced Republican Sen. Rick Santorum, a staunch pro-lifer.
"That was significant," Day told BP, referring to the party's early support for Casey. "The fact that he won, I think, sends a really strong message that the Democratic Party has to include pro-life Democrats if it is going to be a strong party. They really, truly have to promote the big tent."
The change in strategy by Democratic leaders apparently was sparked by losses in the 2004 election, when Bush defeated Democratic nominee John Kerry in an election in which Democrats felt Bush was vulnerable. That same year Republicans also increased their Senate majority.
"If you look at 2004 when the election was all about moral values, the Democratic Party really had to step back and see where they were headed," Day said. "...[Democratic strategists] James Carville and Paul Begala came out and said, 'Why is the Democratic Party on the fringe on this issue?' Democrats for Life has been saying it all along, but when you expand the big tent of the Democratic Party and include pro-lifers, we win elections."
Democrats, Day says in her book, must "send a strong message ... that our position on abortion will no longer be dictated by special interest groups such as NARAL, NOW, and Planned Parenthood."
The new influx of pro-life Democrats won't please Christian conservatives on every issue. Shuler supports stem cell research using embryos from in vitro fertilization, according to The Washington Post. Casey opposes a federal marriage amendment and received campaign money from the Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest homosexual activist organization.
But on the issue of abortion, the pro-life Democrats should provide a strong pro-life voice in the party. Pro-lifers have high hopes for Casey, who is consistently pro-life and opposes embryonic stem cell research.
"After this election I started talking to some of the pro-life groups," Day said. "I think they're finally getting it — that this can't be about one party or the other. It has to be about people working together to end abortion. When it's used as a political football, everyone loses."
Day knows the political battle is far from over. For starters, her pro-life position on abortion remains essentially a non-starter for Senate Judiciary Committee Democrats, many of whom opposed then-Supreme Court nominees John Roberts and Samuel Alito because of their perceived pro-life positions. Democratic Sen. Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.), who serves on the committee, told the New York Observer after the election, "Judges are the most important. One more justice would have made it a 5-4 conservative, hard-right majority for a long time," he said. "That won't happen."
During the election, Casey said he would have supported both Roberts and Alito. Pro-lifers hope Casey won't support any filibuster of President Bush's judicial nominees.
"I think in this situation [Bush] should appoint a pro-life Democrat," Day said. "If somebody steps down, he puts a Democrat up there who is pro-life, and let's see where the chips fall. I wonder how many conservatives, if there was a liberal pro-life judicial nominee, how many would support them."
Day hopes to see at least two pieces of pro-life legislation — the National Cord Blood Inventory Act and the Child Custody Protection Act — pass in the new Congress. She holds out hope that the Democratic platform, when it is rewritten in 2008, will be different on abortion. As of now, the two parties have opposing positions on the issue, with the Democratic platform supporting abortion rights and the Republican platform declaring that the "unborn child has a fundamental right to life which cannot be infringed."
"2004 was very different from 2006 [for pro-life Democrats], and it's going to be very different in 2008 when we rewrite the platform," Day said. "I'm pretty confident it's going to be a lot better and a lot more accommodating for pro-life Democrats."