The Working Catholic: Abortion Stereotypes by Bill Droel
One gets the impression nowadays that to be a member of the Democratic Party is to favor a woman’s autonomous right to unimpeded access to abortion, at least during the first six months of her pregnancy. Further, all Democrats supposedly favor the federal government as the guarantor of that right.
In fact, many members of the Democratic Party have a textured view of the abortion issue. Some Democrats support Consistent Life organization (www.consistentlifenetwork.org) which opposes poverty, the death penalty and abortion. There is also the group Democrats for Life (www.democratsforlife.org) which supports “whole life” Democratic candidates and office holders.
Back in the day, many pro-life leaders were solid Democrats and most were Catholic, details Daniel Williams in Defenders of the Unborn: the Pro-Life Movement before Roe v. Wade (Oxford University Press, 2016). These leaders drew upon the New Deal and upon natural law. They used “the same language of human rights [and] civil rights” as found in the movements for racial justice and equal opportunity for women. Further, these leaders, as Democrats, believed that government has a positive but not exclusive role to play in protecting rights and in delivering services to the needy, says Williams.
Not all Catholic Democrats were vocal about pro-life. But the pro-life list included Catholics like Sargent Shriver (1915-2011), Eunice Shriver (1921-2009), Thomas Eagleton (1929-2007), Edmund Muskie (1914-1996) and yes, Ted Kennedy (1932-2009) plus non-Catholic Jesse Jackson. Likewise in the old days, some Catholic bishops who supported progressive causes also spoke against abortion, including Thomas Gumbleton of Detroit and Cletus O’Donnell (1917-1992) of Madison. Meanwhile, some prominent Republicans were speaking in favor of abortion. And, in another surprise from Williams, “evangelicals largely eschewed the pro-life movement” prior to 1973. They were uneasy about associating with anything that felt Catholic and simply did not give much attention to social issues, focusing instead on individual faith expression.
The core pro-life Catholic Democrats gradually created a “bipartisan, ecumenical coalition” with mainline Protestants, Williams continues. Despite some setbacks, this coalition won victories at the state level and saw results from its educational efforts. To furnish one example, 10,000 people rallied in late 1972 in New York City against a proposed state law to extend abortion access. By 1972 the pro-life movement (still attracting liberals and Catholics) had defeated pro-abortion legislation in 25 states.
On January 22, 1973 the Supreme Court rendered its Roe vs. Wade decision. The argument that “women had an absolute right to choose not to be pregnant” took off, Williams details. In reaction to the court decision new pro-life alliances emerged, particularly with evangelical groups. And after January 1973 many liberals gave up the pro-life cause; some switched positions. The new pro-life movement after Roe spent little energy on retaining or recruiting liberals.
Many liberals today seem uninterested in listening to reasonable pro-life arguments. For example, one day after the January 20, 2017 inauguration of former president Donald Trump nearly one-half million walked in a Woman’s March on Washington. Nationwide total participation reached perhaps four million. Various groups had partnership status for this historic protest against the meanness conveyed by Trump during his campaign. A pro-life group from Texas was anti-Trump. However, after initial approval their partnership for the protest was revoked. A chairwoman of the march explained: “If you want to come to the march you are coming with the understanding that you respect a woman’s right to choose.”
- Some Democrats who favor access to abortion think the Roe decision is flawed. Some think that in addition to the Supreme Court and the federal administration other entities have a stake in abortion policy.
- Some Democrats identify as pro-life, though there are different approaches. For example, not all favor exclusive attention on the Supreme Court.
- Some Republican office holders and candidates who identify as pro-life are insincere. Interestingly, the number of abortions has decreased during Democratic presidencies.
- Some members of the Republican Party generally favor the Roe decision.
Whatever one’s position on abortion, it would be honorable and strategic to put away easy assumptions.
Droel edits INITIATIVES (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629), a printed newsletter on faith and work.