Polls show Americans as fairly evenly divided between pro-life and pro-choice positions. Until recently, there was similar diversity in the Democratic Party. The Democratic Party, during many years of its existence, was open and diverse in positions on abortion. Democratic politicians and candidates were accepted and supported, whether pro-life or pro-choice. In 2004, a Zogby poll found that 43% of Democrats “agreed with the statement that abortion destroys a human life and is manslaughter.”
Mark Stricherz, in his book Why the Democrats Are Blue, How Secular Liberals Hijacked the People’s Party, reports on how this was changed, starting around 1968. As the dust jacket of Stricherz’s book notes, “He reveals how a group of secular professionals seized control of the Democratic Party, driving away Catholics and blue-collar workers. He exposes the tactics these elites used as they hijacked a commission formed at the 1968 Democratic national convention, toppled the party bosses, created a nomination system geared toward activists, and built an affluent, secular base of support.”
Pro-life Democrats who had held office for years discovered that they could not run as approved Democratic candidates and would receive no support. Pro-life Democrat Robert Casey, Sr. discussed this in the article “The Gag Rule Party.” He said,
The raging national debate about tolerance on the issue of abortion was ignited in New York at the 1992 Democratic National Convention, when the party denied me, then the Democratic Governor or Pennsylvania, the right to speak because I am pro-life and planned to say so from the convention podium. That’s how the Democrats became known as the party of the gag rule. . . . They have become intolerant of those who hold the pro-life view, who have carried the Democratic banner into battle and supported the party and its candidates for generations. . . . This imposed conformity, which treats the right to life as an idea beyond even the pale of discussion, has peer and precedent in our national history. . . . Abraham Lincoln warned of an established opinion that would tolerate nothing short of saying slavery was right—that would “grant a hearing to pirates or to murderers,” but not to opponents of slavery. . . . Why is my position on this issue—which is shared by numerous Democratic members of Congress, elected Democrats at all levels of government and countless Democratic voters—now so unacceptable that is must be unspoken among us?
Casey went on to call on the Democratic Party to “give all God’s children, born and unborn, a seat at the table.”
The many pro-life Democrats have reacted to this takeover with shock and grief; many have left the party. At Democrats for Life tables at Walks for Life, this writer met many people who came up to say, “I used to be a Democrat but I left the party because of abortion.” Others have stayed and worked to turn the policies around. Jimmy Carter and other prominent pro-life Democrats signed a public letter calling on the party to change these policies. Carter said, “ . . . except for the times when a mother’s life is in danger, or when a pregnancy is caused by rape or incest I would certainly not, never have approved of any abortions.” Democrats For Life of America (DFLA) provided an organized group within the party where pro-life Democrats could find fellowship, organize support for pro-life Democratic candidates, and provide a public voice. DFLA exists to foster respect for life from conception to natural death. It is a member organization of Consistent Life. Their website reports the doings of pro-life Democrats.
The intolerance toward pro-life Democrats continued until 2004. Stricherz notes that after Democratic losses in the 2004 election, many Democrats concluded that the party should no longer shut out culturally conservative Democrats. The work of DFLA and the protests of prominent pro-life Democrats also had an effect. John Kerry said that the national party needed to rethink how it presented itself to voters on issues like abortion and that pro-life Democrats should be embraced. Hillary Clinton said that if Robert Casey, Jr. wanted to address national convention about abortion, she would support him; she said, “We’re a big tent party.”
The Democratic Party was more open to pro-life candidates in the 2006 midterm elections. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee endorsed Bob Casey, Jr., a pro-life candidate who won his Senate seat. He, with other pro-life Democrats in the Senate, gave the Democrats a majority. There were 37 pro-life Democrats in the House of Representatives and this openness continued for several years. Casey spoke to the Democratic Convention in 2008. That year, the head of NARAL Pro-Choice America stated that DFLA is growing and is a threat to the pro-choice stance of the Democratic Party.
The cause of pro-life Democrats was damaged by controversy over the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Pro-life Congress member Bart Stupak had for months led an effort to keep abortion out of the new health act. He struck a deal with President Obama by which Stupak and his many supporters would vote for the bill and Obama would sign an executive order forbidding the use federal dollars to fund abortions. Several large, conservative, pro-life organizations attacked the deal, Stupak, and other pro-life Democrats, saying it did not prevent tax dollars from paying for abortions. They ran vigorous campaigns to defeat some pro-life Democrats in 2010. The number of pro-life Democrats in Congress was cut in half. Pro-life Democrats disputed the conservatives’ assertions that the health care act funded abortions. Independent fact-checking organizations agreed with the pro-life Democrats. The pro-life Democrats also pointed out that the health care act provided urgently needed support for pregnant and parenting women.
The 2010 election losses were a setback for DFLA. Still, they are hopeful and optimistic. They note that 25,000 people signed their “big tent” petition, calling for the welcome of pro-life Democrats in the Democratic Party. In 2012, they endorsed three pro-life Senate candidates (all were winners), and four successful candidates for House seats. They have been particularly successful in races for state and local offices where large campaign funds rarely enter. 152 pro-life Democrats won state senate or state house seats in 2012.
DFLA continues its fight for the inclusion and increase of pro-life Democrats in the party. DFLA is planning a Historic Pro-Life Democratic Summit in St. Louis, MO, on September 20 and 21, 2013. Planned panels include: Being pro-life is more than opposing abortion; Bringing pro-life voters back to our party; Wining local races and grassroots building; and The future of the pro-life movement.
Pro-life Democrats who long to see their party as a party of peace, justice and life have much work to do on all those issues, as do our brothers and sisters in other parties.
1. Kristen Day, Democrats for Life, New Leaf Press, Green Forest, AR, 2006,
2. Mark Stricherz, Why the Democrats Are Blue, How Secular Liberals Hijacked the People’s Party, Encounter Books, NY, 2007.
3. Robert P. Casey, the Gag Rule Party, in Labour Life Group News, Issue 20, Summer 1997, p. 11 (Journal of pro-life members of the UK Labour Party).
4. Robert P. Casey, the Gag Rule Party, in Labour Life Group News, Issue 20, Summer 1997, p. 11 (Journal of pro-life members of the UK Labour Party).
5. Michael Sean Winters, “DFLA Calls for /'Big Tent/' in Dem Platform,” National Catholic Reporter,http://ncronline.org/blogs/distinctly-catholic/dfla-calls-big-tent-dem-platform.
6. Stricherz, op. cit. p. 233.
7. Stricherz, op. cit. p. 233.