Whither Democrats for Life?
The Democratic National Convention gave top billing to abortion-rights leaders and adopted a platform that supports abortion under virtually all circumstances.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — “As a Catholic woman, I take reproductive health seriously, and today it is under attack,” Caroline Kennedy — daughter of America’s first Catholic president — stated during her prime-time speech endorsing President Barack Obama last night, Sept. 6, at the Democratic National Convention.
Kennedy’s astonishing invocation of her Catholic faith in support of abortion — which the Church teaches is always intrinsically evil — capped off what is being described as the most pro-abortion convention of a national party in U.S. history.
Another poke in the eye to social conservatives: The new Democratic platform features a plank endorsing homosexual “marriage.” The unprecedented deletion of any reference to God in this year’s Democratic platform — put back only after three roll-call votes — was also a turnoff for traditional Christian viewers. Boos from the floor upon the reintroduction of God into the platform probably didn’t help.
Convention speakers included such luminaries of the abortion movement as Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Action Fund; Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America; and Sandra Fluke, the Georgetown University law student who rose to national prominence with her demand that even employers who object to the federal contraception mandate on moral or religious grounds should be forced to pay for it anyway.
“It’s like we woke up in a bad episode of Mad Men,” said Richards, in a reference to the furor provoked by the controversial federal mandate and GOP attempts to end federal funding of organizations that provide abortion services.
“When Mitt Romney says he’ll ‘get rid of’ Planned Parenthood and turn the clock back on a century of progress, it has real consequences for the 3 million patients who depended on Planned Parenthood last year,” Richards told the convention.
The “get rid of” quote was a reference to Romney’s publicly stated vow to end federal funding for Planned Parenthood if he is elected. According to FactCheck.org, Planned Parenthood received $363.2 million, about a third of its budget, from the federal government in 2008-09.
As for contraception, the Republican Party has no position on the “issue,” other than opposition to forcing employers who regard it as morally repugnant to pay for contraception coverage, including access to abortifacents, without even a co-pay.
Nevertheless, Planned Parenthood made the most of its high-profile role at the Charlotte convention. It joined in the “war on women” drumbeat and handed out condom souvenirs — presented in bright-pink sleeves that looked like matchbooks, bearing the slogan: “Protect yourself from Romney and Ryan in this election.” A spokesman for the group told the Daily Caller that they were “literally mobbed on the sidewalks” by condom seekers.
Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius, widely viewed as the architect of the contraception mandate, also addressed the convention.
While giving top billing to abortion-rights leaders, the Democratic Party also adopted a platform that supports abortion under virtually all circumstances. The language does not rule out even partial-birth or late-term abortions and seems to endorse public funding of abortion. The formula that abortions should be “safe, legal and rare,” at least an acknowledgement of the gravity of the issue, was dropped in 2008.
The current abortion plank reads, in part: “The Democratic Party strongly and unequivocally supports Roe v. Wade and a woman’s right to make decisions regarding her pregnancy, including a safe and legal abortion, regardless of ability to pay. We oppose any and all efforts to weaken or undermine that right.”
Steve Schneck, director of the Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies at Catholic University of America and a co-chair of Catholics for Obama, admitted that he is not pleased by the language in the platform.
“It’s well-known that Democrats for Life pushed hard but had little success in advocating for changes to the 2012 Democratic Party platform that made more room in the party for pro-life concerns,” said Schneck, a member of Democrats for Life, who debated budget issues with vice-presidential hopeful Paul Ryan in the pages of Our Sunday Visitor. He added that about 30% of Democrats nationally identify themselves as pro-life.
Instead of influencing the platform, however, Democrats for Life were relegated to a hotel, where the group held a panel discussion entitled “Can You Be Pro-Life in a Pro-Choice Party?” It drew about 40 people.
The abortion activism spilled out of the convention and into the streets, where activists from around the U.S. gathered. Pro-lifer Brice Griffin and her 11-year-old daughter Zoe attended a prayer vigil to end abortion last Friday in Charlotte. Griffin said that Zoe was reduced to tears after a pro-abortion demonstrator called her “stupid.”
Griffin added that the pro-life group spread out several thousand red carnations to remember the children who die each day through abortion. One pro-abortion activist brazenly picked up two carnations, according to Griffin, and, placing one behind each ear, announced that she was commemorating her two abortions.
The incident made it into the Charlotte Observer. “I had two abortions, no regrets,” Lucia Liberta of the “End Pornography and Patriarchy” group was quoted as saying. “Without this basic right, women cannot be free.”
“The Democrats are definitely drawing a line in the sand and saying, ‘We support abortion with no apology,’” said Bryan Kemper of Stand True, an anti-abortion group.
The emphasis on abortion and contraception is an element of a broader campaign to present Republicans as opposed to the interests of women, an important group of voters in the tight 2012 presidential race.
The “war on women” rhetoric surfaced as soon as religious leaders, backed by some of their allies in the GOP, began to strongly oppose the contraception mandate. Media coverage of that dispute picked up the theme, but Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List, a pro-life organization, doesn’t think it is working.
“They are true believers, and it’s hard for them to get outside of that mindset. But they are doing worse [than they were] among women,” said Dannenfelser.
Indeed, an ABC News poll released earlier this month found that the president’s popularity with women was “under water.”
The poll found that, among women registered voters, the president’s favorables had fallen from 57-39 favorable-unfavorable in April to a current 46-50.
“I think they overreached with Sandra Fluke because she is not a sympathetic character for most women,” Dannenfelser said.
Dannenfelser added that the removal of the word “rare” from the Democratic plank is significant, because doing so “reflects [their] desire to be purists and reveals that they are extremists.” However, Dannenfelser thinks that this gives her group an opening. “We are exploiting that,” she said.
She noted that the Susan B. Anthony List made a $42,000 ad buy for a spot featuring abortion survivor Melissa Ohden that ran on major networks during the president’s acceptance speech. SBA has plans to purchase additional TV time to highlight what the organization terms the president’s “extreme record on abortion.”
Dannenfelser said that the Ohden ad is particularly relevant because President Obama voted four times against legislation that would have provided medical attention to children such as Ohden who are born alive despite an attempted abortion.
“On balance,” Michael Barone, a columnist and the American Enterprise Institute’s noted expert on electoral politics, called the Democratic convention’s emphasis on abortion “a mistake” because “it’s being emphasized at a time when swing voters think the economy is the most important issue.”
The Democrats themselves may realize that a steady diet of abortion may turn away more moderate voters. Indeed, asked if the emphasis will convince some voters that the Democrats are radical on the social issues, Barone replied, “They are putting their radicals on at 5 or 6pm [when fewer people are watching]. They are going heavy on this stuff before 10pm.” Still, Democrats may be “sending a message that they are not concentrating on the right causes.”
“What is so interesting is that this is not one of the issues you could have imagined the Democrats seizing upon four years ago — or this year,” said Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington-based think tank.
Ornstein is a Democrat who teamed with the Brookings Institution’s Thomas Mann to write It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism, which is critical of Republicans.
Ornstein said that the abortion pitch is “not an unalloyed plus” for the Democrats but that it has the possibility of attracting pro-choice Republican women and those who believe that withdrawing federal funding from Planned Parenthood would be bad for women who seek the organization’s contraceptive services.
Meanwhile, Democrats for Life soldiered on in Charlotte. Bart Stupak, the former Michigan congressman who did not seek re-election after casting a vote for the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, despite strong pro-life concerns, was one of the speakers.
During the final bruising weeks that culminated in the passage of the health bill, it was Stupak who negotiated the executive order that ostensibly banned federal funding of abortion and led several pro-life Democrats to provide the crucial votes necessary to secure the passage of Obamacare.
Now, two years later, during the Democrats for Life gathering in Charlotte, he expressed misgivings about the contraception mandate authorized under the health bill. In response to a question, Stupak reportedly said of the Health and Human Services rule, “I think it’s illegal. I believe it has contraceptive services; it also has drugs that induce [abortion] ... abortifacient drugs.”
Stupak nevertheless expressed his hope that the issue could be resolved in the future.
Another speaker was Kathy Dahlkemper, the former Democratic congresswoman from Pennsylvania’s third district, who joined Stupak in voting for Obamacare. She was defeated for re-election in the 2010 midterm election.
Dahlkemper said she knew that when she cast her vote for the health bill it could cost her the seat, but said that “health care for all is something priests and bishops have supported for many years.”
“The Democratic Party aligns with most of my beliefs and values more than the Republican Party that only claims to be pro-life,” she told the Register. “Some of the extremists in the pro-life movement are only pro-birth.”
Kristen Day, executive director of Democrats for Life, told the Register that her party’s uncompromisingly pro-abortion stance is costing them votes.
“[The evolution of the stance] was gradual,” she said, “and it’s not really a winning strategy. Only if we have the pro-life Democrats will we get back into the majority.”
Asked if the Democrats for Life are fighting a lost battle Michael Barone, the political analyst, replied, “Yes,” adding that it is not likely that the Democratic Party will alter its staunchly pro-abortion stand any time soon.
The Rev. Gabriel Salguero, president of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition, delivered a prayer at the convention. He said he is a registered independent and is pro-life.
“Last night at the convention, we had a pro-life nun speak,” he noted, in a reference to Sister Simone Campbell of Network, a Catholic social-justice lobby. “It’s very clear that … a growing group of evangelicals and Catholics are pro-life and trying to have that conversation with the Democratic National Convention.”
Yet, in the Vatican's recent "Instruction" outlining its concerns with the Leadership Conference of Women Religious and related organizations, Network, the organization Sister Simone has led as executive director since 2004, was criticized for its silence "on the right to life from conception to natural death, a question that is part of the lively public debate about abortion and euthanasia in the United States."
Recently, Sister Simone led a “Nuns on the Bus” tour that traveled across the country protesting vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan’s proposed budget cuts. During her convention speech, she described her advocacy of government programs for the needy as “pro-life.”
Sister Simone was quoted this week in The Weekly Standard. When asked if doctors who perform abortions should be penalized, she said, “That’s beyond my pay grade.”
Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, gave the final benediction at the Democratic convention, as he had done earlier at the Republican convention. Cardinal Dolan’s two prayers were strikingly similar, with just a bit of tinkering.
He did not fail to pray for unborn children. "We ask your benediction on those waiting to be born, that they may be welcomed and protected," Cardinal Dolan prayed at the Democratic convention.
In Charlotte, Dolan also prayed about not refashioning the "institutions [God] has given us," which is hard not to construe as an allusion to same-sex “marriage.”
Catholic intellectual George Weigel praised Cardinal Dolan’s prayer at the Democratic convention, noting that he doubted "that any American bishop in history has delivered a more courageous benediction at a public event, under more difficult circumstances."
Not everybody was quite pleased. Washington’s Examiner newspaper reported that “liberals on Twitter” lost no time in expressing “displeasure with a pro-life benediction,” many using profane or vulgar language in their tweets.
Cardinal Dolan’s New York Archdiocese is one of the Catholic institutions suing the federal government in an effort to overturn the HHS contraception mandate.
Register correspondent Charlotte Hays is based in Washington.