Posted on July 01, 1996 in Washington Watch

The Republican party is not alone in being troubled by the issue of abortion. Democrats are also engaged in a debate that bears some striking resemblances to that of their Republican counterparts, although there are some significant differences as well. While on the Republican side it is the pro-life forces (as the anti-abortion movement has come to be called) who dominate the platform debate within the party, among Democrats the tables are turned.

For years Democrats acted as if only the Republican party faced an internal divide over abortion. They felt that their ranks had been unified and opposition to their pro-choice position (as supporters of the right to abortion have come to be called) had been silenced. But this year, while Republicans are struggling with abortion, all is not quiet on the Democratic front.

For Democrats, like Republicans, the issue has become one of tolerance. Although the pro-life Democrats are not as well organized or influential as their Republican counterparts, they are nonetheless insisting that their views be respected within the party platform.

The Democratic platform, like that of the Republicans, has hardened over time reflecting the growing power of pro-choice forces within the party. In 1976, for example, the Democratic party platform plank on abortion read:

“We fully realize the ethical and religious nature of the concerns which many Americans have on the subject of abortion. We feel, however, that it is undesirable to amend the U.S. Constitution to overturn the Supreme Court decisions in this area.”

But by 1992, the platform language on abortion had hardened to eliminate any reference to differences of opinion. It now reads, in part:

“Democrats stand behind the right of every woman to choose consistent with Roe v. Wade [the Supreme Court decision that is the standard for abortion laws], regardless of the ability to pay, and support a national law to protect that right. It is a fundamental constitutional liberty that individual Americans – not government – can best take responsibility for making the most difficult and intensely personal decisions regarding reproduction.”

At the 1992 Republican National Convention it was noted when pro-choice speakers were booed; but at the 1992 Democratic National Convention pro-life Democrats, including the popular Governor of Pennsylvania (who had been in major factor in Clinton’s victory in that important state), were not even allowed to speak at all. And when a woman on the Democratic party platform committee sought to amend the party platform to only slightly restrict abortion, she was booed and did not even get the second vote necessary to open a debate on the issue. (By contrast, as emotional an issue as Palestinian Statehood, while it may not win in party platform debates, at least gets enough votes to be discussed).

This year, when President Clinton vetoed a bill that would have banned an extremely controversial procedure known as a late-term partial-birth abortion, he not only angered Republicans but also outraged some Democrats and ignited a debate within his own party. The concern among Democrats was two-fold.

One the one hand, there were those who were deeply upset by the morality of the practice of the partial-birth abortion. Some have equated this type of abortion to infanticide, since it involves inducing a late-term pregnancy and the ending of a life in mid-birth. It is a rarely used practice, but horrifying to pro-life advocates. The President had sought to mute the intense reaction he feared his veto would receive by convening an event at the White House to explain the decision. At this event, the President first spoke about his concerns with the practice and indicated that he had consulted some religious leaders regarding his decision. He then introduced some women who had had that type of abortion, and they spoke about how difficult their decision to proceed had been and how their lives might have been lost had they not aborted, or how the child they were bearing would not have survived a normal birth or life.

The White House effort, however, did not mollify those who feel that the Clinton Administration has been far too permissive about abortion. Especially outraged were Roman Catholic Church leaders. If evangelical Christians are the pro-life force in the Republican party, it is Catholics who play that role in the Democratic party.

The difference between the two groups, however, is striking. The Christian fundamentalists have become an organized and ideological political force, and have taken over the grass roots of the Republican party. Catholics, especially Irish, Italian, and Polish-Americans, are a real power in the Democratic party but are less ideological and less focused on the issue of abortion.

There are other Democrats who worry about the abortion issue not for its moral implications, but over its political impact. Like their Republican counterparts (those who worry that by going too far to one extreme the party will risk losing the support of pro-choice voters), some Democratic party leaders are concerned that by failing to take into consideration the views and concerns of pro-life Democrats, their party may also lose votes.

And here the Catholic vote becomes an important issue. Catholics comprise between 27-30% of the U.S. voting public, and polls have shown that when in recent years Democrats have won the plurality of the Catholic vote, they have won the elections. A recent study conducted by an Irish American organization estimated that in every Congressional election since 1980, Catholics gave the majority of their votes to Democrats. The only time they did not was in 1994, the year of the Republican landslide in Congress.

While Catholics are not single-issue voters, nor are their votes controlled by their religious leaders, some Catholics can be influenced by moral issues. If only 5% of Catholic voters change their votes in November from how they voted two years ago, they can influence the outcome of the Congressional and Presidential races.

What especially worries Democrats is that Roman Catholic Bishops have in the last two years become quite critical of the actions of the Republican Congress. Republican efforts to limit immigration and aid to the poor had Catholic leaders not only criticizing the Republicans but also praising Clinton’s social programs as well. With a single stroke of the pen, Clinton’s veto of the partial-birth abortion ban turned the bishops into an opposition force. Not only that, but several important ethnic communities, particularly Irish Americans, have made it clear to the White House that they were deeply offended by that veto.

This situation has brought to life the small and previously-silent pro-life caucus within the Democratic party. Led by 10 of the 40 pro-life Democratic members of Congress and some ethnic Catholic organizations, they have recently announced their intention to push for greater openness and tolerance within the Democratic party discussion on abortion.

What these Democrats want is a return to the language of the 1976 platform (that also appeared in 1980 and 1984 but had been dropped since then). In calling for tolerance, these pro-life Democrats are ironically pursuing a goal not unlike that pursued by pro-choice Republicans. And, like the pro-choice Republicans, they face an intolerant majority that controls their party.

In the end, the question of abortion will not be the sole deciding issue on which the overwhelming majority of Americans will determine their vote. And yet it is a highly volatile issue that can disrupt both parties’ efforts to maintain the unity of their respective coalitions.

For comments or information, contact jzogby@aaiusa.org

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