Democrats’ History on Abortion

EDITORIAL: Pro-life Democrats were abundant in the ranks of their party’s leaders not so very long ago, so it’s proper for Catholics of every political stripe to pray that this might be the case again.

(photo: VectorFusionArt/Shutterstock)

This year’s Democratic National Convention marked a new extreme in terms of the party’s pro-abortion allegiances: For the first time, Democrats for Life were prohibited from having even a token presence at the event.

The total marginalization of party pro-lifers coincides with the convention’s ratification of a party platform replete with pro-abortion planks and with its nomination of Joe Biden, the fourth Catholic major-party nominee in U.S. history, and his running mate, Kamala Harris. Biden and Harris deservedly have been described as the most pro-abortion ticket in the history of U.S. presidential politics — exceeding even the extremism on abortion of the previous two Democratic presidential nominees, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

Voters aware only of recent political history understandably might suppose that this contemporary situation, with the Democratic Party overwhelmingly skewed toward support for abortion, has been an immutable characteristic of the political landscape in the United States. But a recapitulation of the last five decades of Democratic presidential campaigns, during the era of legal abortion, tells a very different story.

For one thing, the party’s platform language has shifted dramatically since the 1972 contest between President Richard Nixon and his Democratic challenger, George McGovern. Although McGovern was characterized at the time as a left-wing extremist who would remake the Democrats as the party of “amnesty, acid and abortion,” he favored allowing states to decide on their abortion policy — a position today advanced primarily by some pro-life advocates, not abortion lobbyists, who insist it should be legal everywhere without any limitation — and at his instruction the Democratic platform that year contained no reference at all to the abortion issue. 

Even four years later, in the wake of the calamitous 1973 Roe v. Wade U.S. Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion nationally, the 1976 Democratic platform confined itself to a comment that it was “undesirable” to amend the Constitution to overturn that decision, alongside an assertion that Democrats “fully recognize the religious and ethical nature of the concerns which many Americans have on the subject of abortion.”

The party platform was far more explicit in its support for abortion rights in subsequent election cycles. By the time of the 1992 race between Bill Clinton and incumbent President George H.W. Bush, it stated bluntly, “Democrats stand behind the right of every woman to choose, consistent with Roe v. Wade, regardless of ability to pay, and support a national law to protect that right.”

Even so, it wasn’t until this century that the platform became almost completely unqualified in its support for legal abortion, with the disappearance of language that was incorporated into the 2000 version stating that Democrats “respect the individual conscience of each American on this difficult issue” and that the party was “welcoming” toward views that didn’t conform with its pro-abortion orthodoxy.

The Democratic Party’s shift can also be understood on a more personal level. In 1972, McGovern’s running mate was Sargent Shriver, President John F. Kennedy’s brother-in-law. A committed Catholic, Shriver was not considered a liability to the 1972 ticket because of his adherence to the pro-life teachings of his faith. In fact, he replaced another pro-life Democrat, Sen. Thomas Eagleton, on the Democratic ticket after Eagleton was forced to stand aside because of revelations of his treatment for mental-health problems.

And four years later, Shriver’s bid for the 1976 Democratic presidential nomination was undermined not because he had opposed abortion, but instead because he was mischaracterized by the newsletter of the Iowa Catholic Conference as being less pro-life than eventual party nominee Jimmy Carter. This misrepresentation siphoned crucial Catholic votes away from Shriver when that year’s primary campaign commenced with the Iowa caucuses, and Carter’s upset win there catapulted him into a front-runner status that he never relinquished.

In 1992, by contrast, the party’s leadership had become far more hostile to pro-life Democrats who were principled enough to break publicly from the now-entrenched party commitment to abortion rights. That year, the DNC’s organizers denied a speaking slot to Gov. Robert Casey of Pennsylvania, despite the Catholic politician’s stature as the governor of a key state, after it was learned that Casey intended to utilize his speaking time to deliver a pro-life message to party delegates.

Fast-forward to 2020, with the Democrats in effect hanging out a sign declaring “pro-lifers not allowed” before the convention even started. And this year’s platform incorporates the most extreme demands of the abortion lobby — including, as in 2016, a party pledge to eradicate the Hyde Amendment, the bipartisan legislative provision that since 1977 has served to protect federal taxpayers from being forced to directly fund abortions except in limited cases.

And whereas back in 1972 it was McGovern himself who, as the party’s nominee, intervened to prevent the inclusion of abortion language in the party platform, in 2020 Biden presaged the convention’s renewed crusade against Hyde via his own shameful campaign flip-flop on the matter last year after he was called out by abortion activists for his previous decades of support for the amendment while serving as a U.S. senator and then as vice president.

Indeed, Biden’s trajectory on abortion since first being elected to the Senate in 1972 largely parallels that of his party. In the immediate aftermath of Roe in 1973, he stated the Supreme Court went “too far” in the decision, and he initially opposed allowing any exemptions to the federal ban on taxpayer funding for abortions.

But over the years he steadily softened his resistance to limitations to abortion, culminating in last year’s reversal on the Hyde Amendment. And he undertook this journey away from protecting life with the clear knowledge throughout that his Catholic faith unchangeably condemns “the moral evil of every procured abortion” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2271).

At this moment, there is no reason to hope that Biden will reverse his current pro-abortion position, even though the U.S. bishops have reaffirmed that ending abortion remains “the preeminent priority” for Catholic voters in this election cycle. Equally, there is no sign that his party will soften its current pro-abortion litmus test against pro-life Democrats.

Still, this review of the Democratic Party’s abortion history does at least offer a pointed reminder that, in politics, there is almost nothing that is truly unchangeable. Pro-life Democrats were abundant in the ranks of their party’s leaders not so very long ago, so it’s proper for Catholics of every political stripe to pray that this might be the case again — and to work toward that goal as much as possible.