Washington Bureau Chief

WASHINGTON—On Jan. 22, when President Clinton called for increased security at abortion clinics and Hillary Clinton addressed a pro-abortion luncheon crowd, Democrat activist Lois Kerschen participated in the March for Life.

Kerschen of Hereford, Texas, was one of a number of Democrats who came to the nation's capital to support the pro-life effort. Challenging the strong support for abortion at the party's national level, she said, “The party has no right to ask people to choose between their party and their morals.”

Polling data, in fact, reflect that Democrats are pro-life. A survey taken Jan. 23-25 by The Polling Co. of Washington, D.C., showed that about half of Democrats are pro-life. Those who identify themselves as “strong Democrats,” according to research director Jason Booms, are perhaps even more pro-life — with from 45% to 53% identifying themselves as such.

Further, those senior citizens with strong New Deal-era roots are 70% pro-life, and two-thirds of black voters consider themselves pro-life.

Because of this dichotomy between the party's leadership, particularly in Washington, and its rank and file, Kerschen has worked to help establish National Democrats for Life, which was formally organized Feb. 2.

“There is a large body of people who are Democrats and pro-life, and we've been made to feel we don't belong in the party,” Kerschen said. “A lot of pro-life Democrats have left the party or have been sitting out there in limbo.

'There is a large body of people who are Democrats and pro-life, and we've been made to feel we don't belong in the party.’

“It's been a struggle. What we want to do is reassert our position in the party, be the voice of life in the party, and eventually turn the party around.”

Kerseben, who has been president of Texas Democrats for Life, was elected president of the new national organization. Another longtime party activist, Sally Winn of Springfield, Ill., is the executive director.

The former head of Indiana Democrats for Life, Winn said, “Our party is really suffering from taking this hard line on abortion. Our party used to be so wonderful and diverse, and it reflected a cross-section of society. Unfortunately, they [party leaders] are erecting litmus tests which are turning us into a monolithic party.”

The 1996 pro-abortion platform of the Democrat Party has a “conscience clause,” in which pro-lifers are told that their views are respected. But pro-life champion Robert Casey, the former Pennsylvania governor, was denied the opportunity to speak on the issue at the convention which adopted it.

In a speech he made right after the convention, Casey cited a leading Democrat of the past, on the need to protect life at key junctures: “We would look, in the words of Hubert Humphrey, to those in the shadow of life, those in the twilight of life, and those at the dawn of life.”

Winn, in a 1996 article in Christian American,published by the Christian Coalition, said, “Historically it has been the Democratic Party that has led the cause to protect the rights of those who are powerless and without voices.”

But she told the Registerthat pro-abortion leaders helped bankroll the national Democrat organization in the 1970s and have maintained a strong hold on the party purse strings, encouraging ambitious candidates to support abortion. “Money speaks and money is power, unfortunately,” she said. “They will go where the money is greatest.”

Although there are many prominent Democrats who support abortion, including Clinton, Vice President Al Gore, and Rev. Jesse Jackson, there is still a core of pro-life Democratic officeholders around the country.

In the U.S. House of Representatives, for example, there are about 40 Democrats, about 20% of the party's membership, who consistently support pro-life positions. In addition, 77 House Democrats voted to override Clinton's veto of the partial-birth abortion ban in 1998.

Rep. Tony Hall of Dayton, Ohio, one of the most prominent House pro-life Democrats, has been approached to chair the National Democrats for Life's board of advisers. Other key pro-life House members include James Barcia of Michigan, the co-chair of the Congressional Pro-Life Caucus, and Ralph Hall of Texas.

In the November congressional elections, the Democratic campaign committee recruited four pro-life candidates who were elected in socially conservative districts in Mississippi, Kentucky, Illinois, and New York. In Pennsylvania, strongly pro-life Patrick Casey, son of the former governor, narrowly lost his bid.

One of the successful pro-life Democrats was David Phelps, who now represents a rural district in Southern Illinois. Phelps boasts a 100% pro-life voting record in his 14 years in the state Legislature.

After his election, Phelps told the Register,“I feel that life is life at conception. We should do everything we can to protect it. I can't deny what I believe. This business is not worth it to compromise who you are.”

In the Missouri House, David Reynolds of St. Louis County founded and chairs Missouri Democrats for Life, a group of 25 members who consistently vote pro-life. That represents nearly one quarter of the chamber's Democrats. “lt's an effort to publicly show that you can be pro-life and Democrat at the same time,” he told the Register.

Winn, the activist from Illinois, talked about the challenge these office-holders face: “It's very, very lonely. I don't think they're getting the pat on the back from the pro-life community. They're sticking their necks out every time they take a pro-life position.”

National Democrats for Life is hoping to encourage them while helping to swell the number of pro-life Democrats both in Washington and in the states. Their immediate goals are to establish chapters in 35 states, recruit pro-life candidates in those states, and encourage pro-life Democrats to take a more visible legislative role.

“We're talking about working from the local level on up,” Kerschen said. “It's important to bring our efforts even to the county courthouses.” The organization expects to develop a political action committee as well.

One of the board members, John Schmidt of Louisville, Ky., also emphasized the importance of grass-roots efforts. He said that an integral part of what he does as a Democrat precinct captain will be to emphasize the document Living the Gospel of Life: A Challenge to American Catholics, which the nation's bishops adopted in November.

“I'm going to distribute it among the Catholic politicians I know; the bishops said it much better than I can,” he said. He added that he believes that Catholic support for a politician may hinge on the abortion issue. “I think politicians will follow money and votes.”

The director of the Republican National Coalition for Life, Colleen Parro, is supportive of the new organization.

“I think it's great,” she exclaimed. “The right to life should transcend all politics. It ought to be the center of everyone's activity. To the extent that they're willing to try, we wish them well.”

In the past month, another pro-life Democrat group has also been formed. The National Coalition of Pro-Life Democrats, drawing much of its membership from the Ancient Order of Hibernians, is seeking to elect local and state candidates in a fashion reminiscent of labor organizing.

One of the leaders of this group, Joe Barrett of Silver Spring, Md., said, “There is a need for an organization that can work with pro-life congressmen and state legislators and help keep them in office. We can show them and others the techniques on how to run a campaign.”

Practical politics is involved, he stressed.

“There is a light of day which is dawning on some Democrats” that pro-life votes are becoming important and candidates will recognize that, Barrett contended. “They haven't had an epiphany. They're not on the road to Damascus.” But more and more candidates, with a push from pro-life activists, will understand that supporting abortion will be a losing position, he said.

Some frustrated Democrats have left their party and joined the Republican Party, which often appears to be more hospitable to the pro-life cause. But staunch pro-life Democrats such as Kersehen, Winn, and Barrett discourage such moves.

Kerschen said, “If we abandon one whole party to the abortion advocates, then we will never turn things around in this country.” Barrett cited the Democrat Party as “a coalition of conscience, which is at once potentially our greatest strength and our greatest weakness.”

And Winn, the daughter of liberal parents who “marched for civil rights and against the Vietnam conflict,” said, “To me, the most logical party to be pro-life is the Democratic Party. We're the champions of the underdog. Why shouldn't we stand up for the unborn?”

She also has written, “Being a pro-life Democrat doesn't need to be seen as oxymoronic or as mutually exclusive. It will take time, but I know our party can find our way back to our pro-life roots. In the meantime, rather than cursing the darkness in our party, we need to start lighting candles.”

Joseph Esposito writes from Washington, D.C.