The Democratic Party appears ready to take another step back on abortion, which is unfortunate given the admirable and hard work done by Democrats for Life of America. Since 2000, the Democratic Party has become ever more bent on supporting abortion rights, as well as becoming more deaf to pleas within and without the party for genuine dialogue and moderation.
In 2000, with Vice President Al Gore at the helm, it looked as though the Democratic Party was beginning to turn a corner. It devoted three paragraphs of its platform to the question of abortion. Here they are:
The Democratic Party stands behind the right of every woman to choose, consistent with Roe v. Wade, and regardless of ability to pay. We believe 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. This year’s Supreme Court rulings show to us all that eliminating a woman’s right to choose is only one justice away. That’s why the stakes in this election are as high as ever.
Our goal is to make abortion less necessary and more rare, not more difficult and more dangerous. We support contraceptive research, family planning, comprehensive family life education, and policies that support healthy childbearing. The abortion rate is dropping. Now we must continue to support efforts to reduce unintended pregnancies, and we call on all Americans to take personal responsibility to meet this important goal.
The Democratic Party is a party of inclusion. We respect the individual conscience of each American on this difficult issue, and we welcome all our members to participate at every level of our party.
In 2004, things were quite different, despite the fact that the party’s presidential nominee, Senator John Kerry, was a Catholic:
Because we believe in the privacy and equality of women, we stand proudly for a woman’s right to choose, consistent with Roe v. Wade, and regardless of her ability to pay. We stand firmly against Republican efforts to undermine that right. At the same time, we strongly support family planning and adoption incentives. Abortion should be safe, legal, and rare.
Now in 2008, the draft of Democratic Party’s platform includes only one paragraph on abortion:
The Democratic Party strongly and unequivocally supports Roe v Wade and a woman’s right to choose a safe and legal abortion, regardless of ability to pay, and we oppose any and all efforts to weaken or undermine that right.The Democratic Party also strongly supports access to affordable family planning services and comprehensive age-appropriate sex education which empower people to make informed choices and live healthy lives. We also recognize that such health care and education help reduce the number of unintended pregnancies and thereby also reduce the need for abortions. The Democratic Party also strongly supports a woman’s decision to have a child by ensuring access to and availability of programs for pre and post natal health care, parenting skills, income support, and caring adoption programs.
Let’s break down the evolution (or devolution) of the Democratic abortion plank of the platform.
Position on Roe
- 2000: “stands behind” the right of women to choose abortion, “consistent with Roe“
- 2004: “we stand proudly behind” the right of women to choose abortion, “consistent with Roe“
- 2008: “strongly and unequivocally supports Roe v. Wade and a women’s right to choose”
In 2004, the Democratic Party felt the need to declare that it not only stands behind Roe, as it did in 2000, but that it does so “proudly.” Like it did in 2000, the Democratic Party did not identify its position on abortion with Roe, but merely stated that its position is “consistent with Roe.” However, in the 2008 draft, the Democratic Party virtually identifies its position with Roe. But that’s not all. Instead of just “standing proudly behind” Roe (2004), it now “strongly and unequivocally supports” Roe itself. This shift in language from “standing behind” to “standing proudly behind” to “strongly and unequivocally supporting” indicates that a pro-choice position is being dyed into the very fabric of the party.
Responsibility for Making Choice for Abortion
The 2000 platform indicated that the Democratic Party’s pro-choice position is attached to its belief that private individuals ought to make the choice to have an abortion without any interference from the government. The language suggested that privacy and right were the driving forces. The 2004 platform, in contrast, makes no reference to the responsibility of a private individual, but only vaguely mentions the right to choose. The 2008 platform aligns itself with the 2004 platform in this respect. The two blur the distinction between personal, private choice and government involvement.
Reduction of the Number of Abortions
2000: “less necessary and more rare”
2004: “safe, legal, and rare”
2008: “safe and legal”
In 2000 and 2004, the Democratic Party’s platform acknowledged a desire to make abortions “rare.” However, in 2008, the draft gives no explicit mention of this desire. Also, note that the 2004 platform connects the reduction of abortions to the legality of abortion where the 2000 platform allowed its desire to reduce the number of abortions to stand apart from the question of legality.
Inclusion of Diverse Opinions on Abortion within the Party
In 2000, the Democratic Party made careful note of its willingness to allow members who differ with the platform to work at every level within the party. The platform says it “respects” and “welcomes” those who differ on the issue of abortion. The 2004 platform, anemic and attenuated in general, omits any such reference to respecting or welcoming within the Democrat fold those who oppose the platform position on abortion. The 2008 platform follows that of 2004, making no reference to the inclusivity of the Democratic Party with respect to abortion.
Partisanship on the Issue of Abortion
In 2004, the platform clause on abortion states explicit that the Democratic Party assumes the duty of resisting Republican efforts to “undermine” the legality of abortion. Accordingly, legalized abortion became not only a matter of individual liberty, but also a matter of entrenched partisanship (I blogged about this previously). In 2008, the explicit reference to the Republican Party was removed, but the resistance to any effort to “weaken” or “undermine” the so-called “right” to abortion remained. The Democratic Party, since 2004, is comfortable turning abortion from merely an issue of rights into a blustering partisan clarion that orients and motivates the party.
Dropping Abortion Rate
In 2000, the Democratic Party took note of the dropping abortion rate in the U.S. and seemingly approved of the trend as a positive outcome: “The abortion rate is dropping. Now we must continue to support efforts to reduce unintended pregnancies, and we call on all Americans to take personal responsibility to meet this important goal.” In 2004, no mention whatsoever of decreasing the number of abortions was made. In 2008, any reference to a dropping abortion rate is noticeably absent (in 2000, the credit presumably could go to President Clinton whereas in the 2008 the credit might be given to President Bush), though a reinsertion of the desire to decrease the number of abortions is reinserted.
In the final months of President Clinton’s presidency, the Democratic Party sought to establish itself as inclusive on the issue of abortion, as supportive of a diminishing abortion rate, and as concerned with helping a mother to educate herself on pregnancy and to receive the necessary economic and medical care that might prompt her to choose life. In 2004, the Democratic Party brought its abortion stance into high relief, hoping to distance and distinguish itself from President Bush’s pro-life measures. Abortion was defined in terms of right and in terms of party politics. Now, in 2008, the Democratic Party continues the trends of 2004 in refusing to open itself to a plurality of opinion on abortion, to stress the need to make abortions rare, and to highlight a dropping abortion rate in the U.S.
Despite the reinsertion and reassertion of the sketched initiatives to educate mothers and to establish social programs to assist economically and medicinally found in the 2000 platform, the 2008 platform hardens itself on abortion, actually describing the absence of such initiatives as constituting a contingent “need” for abortion. The Democratic Party in 2008 is asserting that there are certain socio-economic conditions that create a “need” for recourse to abortion. No such assertion is made in 2000 or 2004. Indeed, all these things considered, 2008 is not a step forward, but a step back for the Democratic Party on abortion.