Democrats, faith and Roe

Democrats, faith and Roe August 16, 2006

Talk to Democrats at church and you will usually find citizens who yearn to find middle ground on America’s most painful social issue, to find ways to restrict or even ban most abortions.

Talk to Democrats as they exit voting booths and you will almost always find voters who pulled levers to elect candidates who oppose these compromises.

The vast majority of Democrats want change on abortion. That’s one of messages in a new study on politics, faith and social issues produced by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life and the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. Yet harsh political realities make it almost impossible to find middle ground.

“If you ask Democrats, ‘Would you like to see some compromises on abortion?’, you will see high numbers” of people saying “yes,” said veteran researcher John C. Green of the University of Akron, who is working at the Pew Forum during this election year. “But if you ask them if they want to see Roe v. Wade overturned, you will get a totally different set of numbers.”

For millions of Americans it is “impossible to reconcile their emotional attachment to Roe with what they believe about finding middle ground on abortion,” he said.

The Pew report provides plenty of evidence that Americans are hard to pin down. They lean right on gay marriage, but are beginning to lean left on embryonic stem cell research. On abortion, small camps of true believers dominate both parties, while millions of average Americans say they want compromise.

“Abortion continues to split the country nearly down the middle,” according to the Pew team. Still, “majorities of Republicans (62%), Democrats (70%) and political independents (66%) favor a compromise. So do majorities of liberals, moderates and conservatives. More than six-in-ten white evangelicals also support compromise, as do 62% of white, non-Hispanic Catholics.”

It’s hard to define “compromise” in terms of legislation, said Green. Study participants were asked if abortion should be “generally available,” “allowed, but more limited,” “illegal, with few exceptions” or “never permitted.” As expected, Republicans were more conservative than Democrats.

Nevertheless, 10 percent of “liberal” Democrats chose the most anti-abortion option and 13 percent said abortion should be illegal, except in cases of rape, incest or to save a mother’s life. Then, 14 percent said abortion rights should be restricted with new laws, which Green said might include a “partial-birth” abortion ban, parental-notification laws, mandatory waiting periods and even a ban on late-term abortions.

“Many of those liberals are black Democrats who are frequent church goers,” said Green. “But those Democrats are still out there.”

Meanwhile, 12 percent of “moderate” and “conservative” Democrats backed a complete abortion ban, while another 39 percent said abortion should be “illegal, with few exceptions,” the choice that Green called a “modern pro-life stance.” Another 20 percent backed legalized abortion, with more restrictions. Once again, church attendance seemed to influence these views.

In all, 37 percent of liberals and 71 percent of centrist Democrats said they supported policies that would not be allowed by the U.S. Supreme Court under current interpretations of Roe v. Wade and other decisions defining abortion rights.

However, the modern Democratic Party is led by liberals who lean left on abortion and hot social issues, according to Peter Steinfels, the veteran religion columnist of the New York Times. But this creates a problem, since the centrists make up 67 percent of the party and the liberals only 31 percent. “The ideologically dominant group — certainly on abortion, less so on same-sex marriage — is the numerical minority,” he noted.

The Republican Party has internal rifts of its own on religious and cultural issues. For example, 44 percent of white evangelicals now support embryonic stem-cell research, which is a 12-point increase over the past year alone. Democrats are split over whether to push gay marriage, but Republicans are split over the issue of whether to amend the U.S. Constitution to ban it.

Green stressed that most Americans, especially those who frequent pews, want to affirm what they believe are “traditional,” even conservative, positions on these kinds of moral issues.

“But they also want to affirm personal freedom and the right of individuals to make their own choices,” he said. “So they are not so sure how to put all that together, when it comes to deciding what to do about an issue like abortion.”


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