WHILE THE Republicans are going through a high-profile fight over the pro-life abortion language in their party platform, Democrats are having a much quieter debate on their side of the aisle. A group of pro-life Democratic congressmen are having behind-closed door discussions with party leaders about inserting a “conscience clause” in the, what has been an unflinchingly pro-abortion party platform.
On the surface, it would appear that these pro-life Democrats are pushing for language similar to the “declaration of tolerance” that Bob Dole has urged for the GOP platform—language that would recognize that differences of opinion exist within the party on this divisive issue. The biggest difference between the parties may be how the issue has been handled.
The Republicans have conducted their debate on the front pages of the nation's newspapers and on the nightly news, as Dole seeks to formally recognize that there are many pro-abortion rights Republicans who disagree with a platform that has been strongly pro-life since 1976. Democrats, by contrast, have thus far succeeded in keeping this small intra-party discussion out of the national news, as pro-life Democrats have been doing their work quietly and without a great deal of fanfare.
For more than a month, a group of roughly 10 pro-life House Democrats have been discussing the abortion issue with party leaders, including the Democrat congressional leadership and the chairman of the Democratic National Committee (DNC). At this point, the reaction of party elders bas been positive and the pro-lifers have been pushing ahead.
But their expectations appear to be modest. While they would like the platform to be neutral on abortion, they realize that the best they can hope for is a conscience clause that recognizes that there are many pro-life Democrats who are very loyal to the party. Estimates are that there are approximately 40 pro-life Democrats in the House of Representatives who routinely vote with pro-life Republicans on abortion issues.
Leaders in the effort include pro-life Catholics like Reps. Jerry Costello (D-Ill.), William Lipinski (D-Ill.), Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio), Harold Volkmer (D-Mo.), and Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), as well as Reps. Tony Hall (D-Ohio) and Glenn Poshard (D-Ill.). “I personally would like to see the platform changed,” said Costello in the American Political Network's Abortion Report. “Realistically, it's not going to be changed, so therefore I think at the very least what we would like to see is recognition that the Democratic Party is an all-encompassing, inclusive party.”
The legislators have been working on draft language that would be placed immediately after the pro-abortion language. Congressman Lipinski has been taking the lead on drafting the “conscience clause” language.
The current draft language reads: “We recognize that there are those in our ranks who are opposed to abortion. The Democratic Party therefore recognizes that each individual member has a right to abide by their conscience on this difficult issue and are welcome participants at every level of the party.”
This language was drafted after a group of 10 pro-lifers met with Donald Fowler, co-chairman of the DNC, at the organization's headquarters in Washington, D.C. on June 12. In a statement, the legislators called their meeting “positive and productive.” Fowler told reporters after the meeting that “Democrats have different positions on a lot of issues. We do not require people to march in lockstep.” Fowler was quick to add, however, that he expects no change in the party's strong pro-abortion position.
“We were not asking for any specific steps at this point,” said Rep. Poshard. “We were just saying that we would like this discussion to be open. Mr. Fowler assured us that he would continue to listen.”
The pro-life Democrats are preparing a letter to Fowler in which they would include the conscience clause language. The next step for the group would be a meeting with pro-abortion Gov. Zell Miller (D-Ga.), chairman of the party's platform committee. Miller has not yet set a date for platform committee hearings.
The pro-life group has also met with senior House Democrats, including Minority Leader Richard Gephardt and Minority Whip David Bonior. “Everyone [who] has met with them has been receptive,” said Jeff Goodell, Congressman Lipinski's legislative director. “Mr. Lipinski is very optimistic that this new language will be included.”
Even the White House has been open to the discussion. White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta, when asked by the Chicago Tribune about the pro-lifers efforts, said that the President is “willing to discuss something like that,” adding that a “cross-section of views” should be represented at the Democratic convention in Chicago.
The 1992 Democratic Party platform was unabashedly pro-abortion, calling for the right of every woman to choose an abortion “regardless of ability to pay” —implying support for Medicaid funding for abortions for poor women, which is not now permitted under current law. It also encouraged research and education on contraception, while calling for a national abortion rights law, the so-called Freedom of Choice Act(FOCA).
“People may not know anything else about the Democratic Party platform, but they know what it says about abortion,” Congressman Hall told the Cleveland Plain Dealer. “It makes it look like we're the party that is for abortion, when a lot of us are pro-life.”
Not all Democrats are completely supportive, however. Pro-abortion activists see no need to tinker with a platform that has their full support. “I see no need for a change in the Democratic abortion plank,” Kate Michelman, president of the National Abortion Rights Action League, told the Sacramento Bee. She said she is concerned that a conscience clause might be seen “as a retreat” from the party's longtime support of legalized abortion.
Pro-abortion leader Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.) told The Washington Post that she did not see a need for the new language. “I do not think we have been intolerant, so I don't think we need to state the obvious. It sounds really redundant to me.”
On the pro-life side, many leaders wished the group well, but some doubt whether they would have a significant impact. Former Governor Robert Casey (D-Pa.), a leading pro-life governor for two terms, told The Washington Times that the group faced a tough struggle: “What they are doing is a positive development. They are picking up where I left off in 1992. But the odds are very long against any change in the platform because the platform committee is a stacked deck.” Casey was prevented from addressing the 1992 Democratic Convention. He instead took out full-page newspaper ads in papers across the country to make the case for pro-life Democrats.
The pro-lifers have taken some important preliminary steps, but the difficult task of convincing the platform committee remains. One thing that they have not done, however, is to elevate this intra-party debate into a full-blown controversy. No doubt earning the respect of the party's leadership, the small band of pro-life Democrats have done their work quietly, leaving the President to concentrate on his key re-election themes.
“This will never be as big an issue for the Democrats, because Bill Clinton's position on this issue is crystal clear: he is a strongly pro-choice President,” said one congressional staffer. “He will never be as involved in this debate the way Bob Dole has been on the Republican side. Bob Dole has several very prominent [pro-abortion] Republican governors that he has to work with, and they are very outspoken about their … views. The pro-life Democrats, on the other hand, are not making this a big deal. They are not trying to pick a fight within the party.”
Michael Barbera is based in Washington, D.C.