WASHINGTON—Pro-life Democrats are looking for a little respect.
From their party, for openers. And from pro-lifers, too.
These Democrats are a small but influential group of 30-plus congressmen whose votes are crucial to the passage of any pro-life legislation in the U.S. House.
Because of their unusual status — they are a minority faction within a generally pro-abortion party — they sometimes felt like square pegs in a round hole.
“I think it's ironic that the Democratic Party that has had this tradition of defending the vulnerable, defenseless and the underdog, could call the woman the underdog, and not the fetus,” said Rep. Jim Barcia, D-Mich., the co-chair of the House Pro-Life Caucus. “Poll results show that 40% of Democrats at the grass-roots level are pro-life.”
Yet for years the Democratic leadership has looked down on its pro-life members.
“A whole bunch of people in the Democratic Party don't want to even talk to you,” observed Rep. Tony Hall of Ohio.
Sometimes they won't listen, either.
The Democratic Party leadership's hostility toward pro-lifers, for instance, hit its peak in 1992 when Gov. Robert Casey of Pennsylvania was barred from addressing the Democratic National Convention because of his pro-life views.
And then there was the case of Rep. Bart Stupak of Michigan, who aimed for a place on the powerful Commerce Committee. “I was denied that seat for two reasons,” Stupak said. “First, they thought I wouldn't win reelection. Second, because I was pro-life.”
Pro-life Democrats are not just upset with their own leadership, but with organizations such as National Right to Life which they claim favor Republicans overwhelmingly.
“There's been a little tension between pro-life Democrats and the National Right to Life Committee,” Barcia told the Register.
Barcia said that it is obvious why pro-life Democrats deserve more financial support than they are currently getting. “Without pro-life Democrats, National Right to Life Committee couldn't get anything off the floor,” he said.
Hall of Ohio said that pro-life Democrats incumbents have been shocked when they discovered that pro-life groups were giving money to their Republican challengers.
“There are egregious examples,” Hall contended. “[Texan] Charlie Stenholm's got a strong pro-life record, always had. Yet [National Right to Life's political action committee] supported his Republican challenger.”
Stupak of Michigan said this sends the wrong signal to Democrats sympathetic to the pro-life position: “They say to me, ‘If you stand up for your right-to-life principles, they won't support you. Why should we stick our necks out only to get it chopped off by both sides?’”
National Right to Life spokesman David O'Steen said that his group's candidate support is done on a case-by-case basis and the party label is not relevant.
He said that National Right to Life in the past had lent financial support to Stenholm of Texas. But it did not do so in 1998 because of Stenholm's support of speech-restrictive campaign finance reforms that would have put limits on how much pro-life groups could mention congressmen by name, according to O'Steen.
“We cannot depend on the secular media to report the right-to-life issue in any way approaching accuracy,” O'Steen explained. “We have to be able to communicate directly with the American voters on the voting records and stances taken on right-to-life issues.”
Referring to Stenholm, O'Steen said, “He supported speech-restrictive reforms. His opponent took a pro-life stance; he promised to defend pro-life speech. That was the difference.”
Responding to criticism that his group doesn't give enough financial support to Democrats, O'Steen said that pro-life Democrats must realize that most of the $1 million that National Right to Life spent during the '98 elections went not to candidates but to voter education.
“Our real constraint we have is that our PAC never has enough money,” O'Steen said. “Most congressmen are probably used to PACs giving them $3,000 or more. We rarely go over $1,000. I think that's the misconception on their part.”
When Democrats lost control of the House in 1994, the party leaders realized that they must rely on their pro-life members if they wanted to become the majority power again.
“They needed me,” Michigan's Stupak told the Register. “If I could get re-elected, then maybe pro-lifers aren't so bad.”
By 1996, pro-life Democrats had won some victories. And the party platform was changed to acknowledge that one could be both pro-life and a Democrat.
While the leadership has become more tolerant and accepting of the pro-life members of the caucus, top positions within the party will likely remain in the hands of abortion proponents.
“There is no doubt if I sought a leadership position in the caucus that my pro-life views would be an issue,” said Stupak. “They'd say, ‘Well, if you want a leadership slot you have to reflect the party's beliefs and the party's pro-choice.’ And I'd have to make concessions.”
Some of the Democrats who have made such concessions in the past, Stupak said, include Vice President Al Gore, House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt and House Minority Whip David Bonior.
“I've seen Democrats who start off pro-life,” Stupak said. “If you want a leadership position, sometimes it can be a stumbling block.”
Perhaps someday even the leadership might change. At least that's the hope of Democratic activist Sally Winn.
Winn took over the reigns of the long dormant National Pro-Life Democrats Committee in October and quickly unveiled a new Web site, www.prolifedemocrats.com.
“Abortion advocates such as Planned Parenthood and NARAL have thrown millions of dollars at party leadership to keep our voices from being heard,” she said. “The silence is over. The National Pro-Life Democrats Committee will work diligently to ensure that pro-life Democrats finally have a seat at the table.”
For Winn, Democratic leaders realize now that pro-lifers are integral to their survival.
“It's not a matter of the party leadership opening their hearts or minds,” she noted.
It's a matter of realizing that they need pro-life Democrats to win elections. So many people left the party on this issue — from the grass roots to elected officials. If they don't do something to reach out to us, we're history and they're left being the minority. They may not want us, but they need us.”
Winn said that though it will not be a part of her organization, a political action committee will soon arrive that will exclusively support pro-life Democrats.
Which is something that congressmen Stupak, Hall and Barcia all think would help the pro-life Democratic movement.
“There are a lot of people looking forward to that,” Hall said. “There is progress. I think it started with the convention three years ago.”