Lauretta Brown is the Register’s Washington-based staff writer.
The question of whether or not there is room in the Democratic party for candidates with a pro-life stance came up during the fifth Democratic presidential debate Wednesday. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., failed to directly answer the question, saying she was “not here to drive anyone out of this party” but also arguing that “protecting the right of a woman to be able to make decisions about her own body is fundamentally what we do and what we stand for as a Democratic Party.”
MSNBC moderator Rachel Maddow pointed out that “just this weekend, Louisiana reelected a Democratic governor, John Bel Edwards. He has signed one of the country’s toughest laws restricting abortion. Is there room in the Democratic Party for someone like him, someone who can win in a deep red state, but who does not support abortion rights?”
Gov. John Bel Edwards is a Catholic who signed a heartbeat bill into law earlier this year that would ban abortion when a fetal heartbeat can be detected — as early as six weeks into pregnancy.
“That’s the way I was raised. That’s what my Catholic Christian faith requires,” he explained of his pro-life stance. “I know that for many in the national party, on the national scene, that’s not a good fit. But I will tell you, here in Louisiana, I speak and meet with Democrats who are pro-life every single day.”
On the debate stage Wednesday, Sen. Warren responded to Maddow’s question by saying that she believes “that abortion rights are human rights. I believe that they are also economic rights. Protecting the right of a woman to be able to make decisions about her own body is fundamentally what we do and what we stand for as a Democratic Party.”
Maddow followed up, trying to get a direct answer to her original question, saying, “I need to push you on this a little bit for a specific answer to the question. Gov. John Bel Edwards in Louisiana, is an anti-abortion governor who has signed abortion restrictions in Louisiana. Is there room for him in the Democratic Party with those politics?”
“I have made clear what I think the Democratic Party stands for,” Sen. Warren replied. “I’m not here to try to drive anyone out of this party. I’m not here to try to build fences, but I am here to say, ‘This is what I will fight for as President of the United States.’ The women of America can count on me.”
Kristen Day, the executive director of Democrats for Life of America, told the Register that Sen. Warren “refused to answer the question” and “by refusing to answer the question about the Democratic party being an inclusive big tent, she basically said we weren’t.” Day called it “very disappointing.”
“The only right answer was ‘We’re all Democrats, we all have the right to be in the party,’” Day said, “especially for a party that prides itself on diversity and inclusion.”
As for Sen. Warren calling abortion rights “human rights,” Day claimed that “ironically, it’s her who’s violating the human rights of the unborn.” She pointed out that Sen. Warren “voted against a bill that would allow a child who survives an abortion to receive medical care so she’s contradicting her own claim that she is an advocate for human rights because she is excluding this whole segment of the population from medical care and the right to life.”
Day told the Register that Democrats for Life of America sent out emails Thursday “urging people to withdraw their funds from Sen. Warren” because “we have to support the one who is with us the most.” At this stage, Day noted that of the 2020 Democratic candidates, only Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, has called for abortion restrictions in the third trimester.
The Democratic Attorneys General Association announced Monday that it would only endorse candidates who publicly support and vow to expand abortion access. Former North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, a Democrat who also served two terms as her state’s attorney general, told The New York Times that she finds the move “exclusionary” because “you have to look at the totality of a candidate.”
Controversy over pro-life Democrats also occurred two years ago when presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders campaigned for Omaha, Nebraska, mayoral candidate Heath Mello who was scrutinized for his past support of pro-life legislation.
"The truth is that in some conservative states there will be candidates that are popular candidates who may not agree with me on every issue. I understand it. That's what politics is about," Sanders told NPR about the incident in April 2017.
Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez released a statement at the time responding to the controversy, saying “every Democrat, like every American, should support a woman’s right to make her own choices about her body and her health. That is not negotiable and should not change city by city or state by state.”
Perez’s statement later received pushback from top Democratic leaders, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who told The Washington Post in May 2017 that she did not believe in a litmus test for Democrats on abortion.
Sen. Sanders did not address the question about pro-life Democrats from the debate stage Wednesday, instead emphasizing that “it is women who control their own bodies, not politicians.”
Day noted the muteness of Sen. Sanders about pro-life Democrats Wednesday and wondered if he had been “bullied” into silence on the matter by the abortion lobby. “There’s fear now among Democratic candidates to stand up to the abortion lobby because they can just be relentless,” she said.
While they have not explicitly argued that pro-life candidates should be excluded from their party, the 2020 Democratic candidates have doubled down on the party’s support for unrestricted, taxpayer-funded abortions up through the third trimester of pregnancy.
“Most Democrats don’t support abortion after the first trimester so these candidates are really misrepresenting the base,” Day said. Gallup polling found that while 77% of Democrats support abortion in the first trimester, that number drops to just 46% in the second trimester and to 18% by the third trimester.