Some Historical Context on the Democratic Party’s Debate on Abortion

WilliamsThe articles on the Democratic Party’s abortion problem continue to appear.  Check out Graham Vyse’s “Why Democrats Are Debating Abortion Yet Again.”  I also recommend Clare Foran’s “Is There Any Room in the ‘Big Tent’ for Pro-Life Democrats?

Once again, if you want some historical context I encourage you to read Daniel K. Williams, Defenders of the Unborn: The Pro-Life Movement before Roe v. Wade.  (Or listen to our interview with Williams in Episode 2 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast).

Here is a pertinent passage (p.247-249) from Williams’s Epilogue

Many pro-lifers were reluctant to leave the party of Franklin Roosevelt, but a larger cultural shift in both the party and the nation made it impossible for them to remain loyal Democrats.  Until the 1960s, both parties had championed the male-headed, two-parent family as a social ideal, and that idea had undergirded Catholics’ loyalty to the Democratic Party.  For three decades following the creation of the New Deal, most liberal Democrats had grounded their calls for social welfare programs and economic uplift in the principle of helping the male-headed household–a concept closely accorded with the Catholic Church’s teaching that the family unit was the foundation of society.  But in the late 1960s and 1970s, liberal Democrats exchanged this family-centered ideal for a new rights-based ethic grounded in individual autonomy and social equality, thus alienating many theologically conservative Catholics, including the pro-lifers who viewed the defense of fetal rights as a liberal campaign and who had hoped to ally with Democrats…

At first, pro-lifers tried to meet liberals on their own ground by defending the rights of the fetus in language that seemed indistinguishable from the constitutional rights claims that women, gays and African Americans were making, while eschewing references to the larger ethic of sexual responsibility and the family-centered ideal that might have branded their campaign as a throwback to an earlier era.  Yet in the end, despite their approbation of rights-based liberalism, their campaign failed to win the support of liberals who realized that fetal rights were incompatible with the values of bodily autonomy and gender equality.

Once autonomy and equality became liberal Democrats’ primary concerns, it was only a matter of time before many devout Catholic pro-lifers who had long been loyal Democrats faced a stark choice.  Would they swallow their reservations about the Democratic Party’s position on abortion in order to further other goals?  Or would they abandon their other political convictions and work with the Republicans?…

While most pro-life activists decided that they could not countenance the national Democratic Party’s stance on abortion, many were nevertheless happy to work with individual Democratic politicians who embraced the pro-life label and were willing to endorse the HLA [Human Life Amendment]. This was an especially popular strategy for pro-life liberals in the mid-1980s, when they still thought they had a chance to regain influence in the party.  Democrats for Life refused to endorse the Democrats’ presidential tickets (since those always featured pro-choice candidates), but nevertheless worked for pro-life Democratic candidates at the local level and attempt to elect pro-life delegates to the Democratic National Convention.  Yet the chilly reception that these conventions gave to Democratic politicians who refused to toe the party line on abortion rights only served to confirm pro-lifers’ growing suspicions of the party.  When the organizers of the 1992 Democratic National Convention refused to Pennsylvania’s Catholic Democratic governor Bob Casey a speaking slot to present a defense of his pro-life views, the snub confirmed many pro-lifers’ belief that the Democratic Party wanted nothing to do with their cause…