Democrats, For Life?

Abortion’s a touchy subject, and certainly not one you bring up at a dinner party. If you’re the Democrats, you try not to bring up within the party itself. Yet Obama and his peers have been talking a lot about it lately, thanks to the pro-life Democrats who held out during health care reform. After that legislation’s passage, the group Democrats for Life released a statement insisting the President’s executive order “brought pro-life Democrats firmly within the Democratic coalition.” That coalition doesn’t extend as far as you imagine.

Led by Michigan Rep Bart Stupak, pro-life Democrats played a pivotal role in reform, holding out until the President reiterated that no federal funds would be used to finance abortion. Pro-life Democrats were thrilled, of course.

Health care passage accomplished two important goals for pro-life Democrats. First, there are the obvious abortion restrictions, which Democrats for Life said, “reforms the health care system from a ‘whole life’ perspective.” Politically speaking, however, the order brought pro-life Democrats firmly into the fold. According to Kristen Day, executive director for Democrats for Life, she and her allies played a pivotal role in negotiations. That’s a far cry from when they began in 1999.

Day says it took party officials about eight months to return her calls. Now they’ve worked alongside the White House to pass health care. The National Organization for Women, so often thought of as Democrats, says they were not consulted. “We were included in discussion on where  health care was going, but we were not consulted,” said NOW president Terry O’Neill. Now she and her allies are rallying their troops against pro-life Democrats, especially Bart Stupak.

Some prochoice groups came out in full force against the executive order. NOW said they were “incensed,” and NARAL called the action “disappointing.” They see the order as extending the Hyde Amendment, which says insurance companies must include plans that exclude abortion. It is, say pro-choice activists, “a slippery slope.” Other pro-choice groups, like Planned Parenthood, say the order’s simply “symbolic” and continues the status quo. Despite that, Planned Parenthood is still joining NOW and NARAL in their endorsement of Connie Saltonstall, the Democrat who’s challenging Stupak. Is a “traditionally” Democratic coalition beginning to crack?

The Democratic Party doesn’t seem too interested involving itself in the debate. “The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee “does not apply a litmus test to candidates,” said one official.  “The most important thing is having the majority,” he said. “We’re against a circular firing squad and need to protect the majority so we can get important things done, such as health reform.” The DCCC isn’t interested in going against an incumbent, “we’re a member-based organization.” The official also insists that Stupak’s “in strong shape.” Regardless, the Stupak/Saltonstall story raises questions about how one defines party loyalty, and how one thinks about abortion itself.

I often think of NOW and its sister organizations as Democratic. Perhaps I’ve just been conditioned, because O’Neill insists that’s not he case: “We’re non-partisan. We have no permanent enemies and no permanent friends. Just permanent issues.” NOW and its sister organizations may not be Democratic in and of themselves, but many Democrats describe themselves as supporters. Pro-life Democrats remain in the party’s minority, and they know it.

Democrats for Life’s Kristen Day made sure to point out that pro-life Democrats aren’t all that different from their party peers, “Pro-life Democrats wanted to pass health care reform, while the majority of the pro-life community wanted to defeat it.” She also pointed out that her group has campaigned for Democrat Tom White, who’s running against Republican Rep. Lee Terry. Most tellingly, unlike many other pro-lifers, Day’s organization doesn’t rely on “religious scare tactics.” Still, NOW’s nonplussed by how cozy the Democrats have become with the pro-life set. The Democrats, says O’Neill, “let women down by not standing up to ideological bullies.”

Abortion will be controversial for years to come. And, thanks to a swell of state-based ballot measures on the issue, abortion could be a wedge issue for Democrats this November. O’Neill, however, thinks that wedge can be trimmed down if we change how we think about the procedure: “Women’s reproductive issues are health care issues – not religious, not ideological.” That’s a tall order, because abortion’s far too subjective, and bogged down by endless interpretations. But Democrats now have to decide which is more important: party coherence or women’s health.

Can one put abortion, an exceedingly important issue, on the backburner to focus on maintaining a majority and preventing a flashback to 1994? Can you disengage it from religious or other objections and go against something you may have fought for in the past? That’s for voters to decide, but hopefully not over dinner. Then it could get really messy.

Image via Millicent_Bystander’s Flickr.