MILWAUKEE — For the first time since 2000, the Democratic National Convention did not permit Democrats for Life of America (DFLA) to caucus as an official part of the convention and refused even to allow them to testify before the platform committee — the latest signs of the party’s overt hostility to the pro-life movement within their ranks.
And the exclusion of their life-affirming perspectives from party consideration severely dampened the enthusiasm Democrat pro-lifers otherwise might have experienced from the convention’s formal nomination of Joe Biden, who became only the fourth Catholic major-party nominee in U.S. history.
“There’s so much frustration, and people are so excited about coming out and speaking out,” said Kristen Day, DFLA’s president, speaking to the Register Aug. 17 following her group’s virtual pro-life caucus held outside the DNC site earlier that day. “They want to vote for Biden, but Biden’s giving us no reason to vote for him. … He’s talking about late-term abortion, paying [for abortion] with taxpayer funds and codifying Roe.”
Pro-life Democrats nonetheless made their voices heard protesting in Milwaukee against their exclusion; and, according to Day, the mounting hostility to these voters and their concerns has only increased their determination and numbers.
In fact, she called the momentum and growth among pro-life Democrats this year “unprecedented.”
Day said that her movement consists of pro-life Democrats who also “want social justice, racial justice, economic justice,” but who are disappointed by “the fact that we’re being excluded and not even a small effort is made to ask for our vote.”
She said this climate is “the most hostile” it has ever been for pro-lifers in the party and referenced a 2017 meeting with Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez, where he remarked that “we welcome pro-life people in the party as long as they don’t vote that way.”
Day said that Perez’s “hostility is like a growth,” pointing to a number of incidents since then, including the fundraising website ActBlue not permitting her group to raise money for pro-life Democratic Reps. Dan Lipinski of Illinois and Collin Peterson of Minnesota and the Democratic Attorneys General Association’s litmus test against pro-life Democrats.
She recalled DFLA’s work with former President Barack Obama’s campaign in 2008, as part of his faith outreach group, and cheering at a debate “when Obama started talking about reducing abortions” because that was language her group had advocated. And while DFLA wants to end all abortion, “if we’re all working to make abortion rare, that’s pretty good; that brings us back into the party.”
Day compared that to now, where the party has backed “taxpayer-funded abortions and late-term abortions, not even making any sort of argument against late-term abortions,” saying that the party’s abortion extremism “has gone too far.”
Day also commented on criticism leveled by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., against former Ohio Gov. John Kasich, a Republican critic of President Donald Trump, who spoke at the Democratic National Convention. Ahead of his appearance, Ocasio-Cortez called Kasich an “anti-choice extremist” who “fights against women’s rights,” in response to Kasich’s comments to Buzzfeed that her “outsized publicity” doesn’t mean she “represents the party.”
“I think she’s very misinformed about the issue of abortion because abortion is detrimental to women. It’s not empowering. Most women who seek abortion are poor; they feel like they have no choice,” Day said. “I think she needs a lesson about pro-life Democrats and what we stand for because we want to empower women; we want to tell women, ‘Yes, you can.’”
She also pointed out “the irony of a pro-life Republican speaking at the convention and there are no pro-life Democrats speaking,” in reference to Kasich speaking at the convention.
More than 100 current and former pro-life Democratic lawmakers, including Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards, Peterson and Lipinski, sent a letter to the DNC platform committee asking for the reintroduction of “the conscience language from 2000 into the 2020 platform, which acknowledges that Americans have differing and deeply held views on abortion” and calling “upon the Democratic Party to avoid divisive policies, such as passing a law in Congress defining a right to abortion (codifying Roe v. Wade) and introducing taxpayer-funded abortion (repealing the Hyde Amendment).”
The 2020 platform draft states that Democrats “oppose and will fight to overturn federal and state laws that create barriers to women’s reproductive health and rights, including by repealing the Hyde Amendment and protecting and codifying Roe v. Wade.” It also targets the Helms Amendment’s ban on taxpayer funding for abortion overseas. The Democratic lawmakers pointed out in the letter that recent Marist polling shows that 60% of Americans oppose taxpayer-funded abortion in the U.S., and 76% of Americans oppose taxpayer-funded abortion overseas.
Lipinski, an eight-term congressman who lost his primary this year after he was targeted by abortion groups, spoke from D.C. to those participating in Democrats for Life’s virtual event Aug. 17. He said that he hoped his loss “doesn’t deflate Democrats for Life, but really brings forth a new energy,” because “we need to make the Democratic Party understand that they need pro-life Democrats.”
He called the Democratic Party platform “out of step with Democrats” and highlighted a DFLA analysis finding that in 389 out of 435 congressional districts a majority of voters support a ban on abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy as well as support the Hyde Amendment.
“It’s a moral imperative that we protect life, and we in the Democratic Party standing for pro-life for the whole life, we need to stand strong,” he said. “There are so many of us out there, although they want to ignore us or say that we don’t exist.”
Terrisa Bukovinac, founder of Pro-Life San Francisco and a member of DFLA’s board of directors, spoke at the DFLA event and participated in protests outside the convention leading up to the pro-life caucus. She told the Register that she became a vocal pro-life Democrat because her views have been left-leaning since high school but she increasingly took issue with her party’s pro-abortion stance. “I’ve just realized that there is such a lack of voices coming from the left that are opposed to abortion,” she said. “The more that I’ve looked into it, the more that I’ve realized that we are actually the majority. … That has really given me the motivation that I needed to stand out and be someone who is taking a position that appears to be unpopular in order to give people the courage to also stand beside me and ultimately put the necessary pressure on our party to change.” Bukovinac said that it’s “disappointing” that “this is the first year that we’ve been kicked out of being allowed to caucus as part of the Democratic National Convention.” She added that the “move has put a fire under a lot of pro-life Democrats.”
“Biden has completely betrayed pro-life Democrats,” she said, as “he championed the life cause years ago, and many of the people that supported him then would not be in a position to support him now.” She believes he “caved to the pressure of just a handful of activists on the left that absolutely do not understand the implications of what they’re saying.” Giving the example of the Hyde Amendment, she said that “at least 2 million lives have been saved by the Hyde Amendment, disproportionately Black, brown and indigenous children of color,” and yet pro-abortion activists in the party “are trying to make it seem like the Hyde Amendment is somehow discriminatory.”
Bukovinac said that, for her, “voting for pro-choice candidates or any candidate that’s going to massively violate fundamental rights, a vote for those candidates is complicity in those acts that we must not be enabling in any way.”
In her work with pro-life Democrats over the years, Bukovinac has observed “a generational gap in how left-leaning people view the abortion issue” and noted that among those who are pro-life Democrats “the boomer generation generally is a little bit more on the moderate side and a little bit more on the Christian side, but younger Democrats tend to be much more progressive, more along the Democratic socialist lines — and yet just as anti-abortion, if not more.”
One of these younger pro-life Democrats, TJ Burgess, also came out to Milwaukee to protest the party’s exclusion of pro-life Democrats. He is a freshman at Louisiana State University, a founder of National Men for Life, and a DFLA intern.
He told the Register that a lot of his beliefs were “in line with liberalism and the Democratic Party” with the exception of the abortion issue. Burgess is a baptized Catholic but described his pro-life stance as “very secular” and stemming from his view that abortion is a “human-rights violation.”
“My generation is much more secularized,” Burgess observed. “Within the last 10 years, more young, diverse and secular people are rising up in the pro-life movement, and there’s people like me that see these figureheads and are like, ‘Wow, that’s somebody like me that I can align with, and they’re in the pro-life movement,’ [and] they feel more welcome.”
He founded National Men for Life in 2018 because he believed that the pro-life movement can both “include men in the movement” and “show how diverse it is.” He cited research he came across when founding the organization that found nearly one-third of abortions are performed on women because of partner-related reasons, showing the significant influence men can have in the process. “It’s extremely vital for men to be active in the family and active within the pro-life movement, so that’s what my organization seeks to do: to get men activated and inspired,” he said, “get them involved and show them that they are not alone … that it really is just standing up for human rights.”
Burgess said he thought there was “hope within the Democratic Party, now more than ever,” and observed that Democrats for Life of America’s social media has been “blowing up” recently and that the group is increasing their outreach to younger pro-life Democrats, as well. In January, a Marist poll conducted by the Knights of Columbus found that 44% of Democrats said they would be “more likely to vote for” candidates who would limit abortion to at most the first trimester.
And while they were largely shut out of the Democratic National Convention, given this depth of party support pro-life Democratic activists promise they will continue to be vocal.
Day said that a January exchange she had with former South Bend mayor and 2020 presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg in which he would not acknowledge that the party had room for pro-life Democrats served as a “huge moment of awakening” for pro-life Democrats. And that exchange, paired with Lipinski’s loss, where Democratic Party leadership was “not protecting the incumbent like they normally do,” has caused pro-lifers in the party to realize that “if we stay silent any longer, we’re going to be gone — and we cannot let that happen.”
Now, Day added, she is “seeing so many more people willing to speak out.”
Lauretta Brown is the Register’s Washington-based staff writer.