The Common Good

Tiptoeing to the Right on Abortion

Date: August 28, 2008

At an opening interfaith prayer ceremony at the Democratic convention Sunday, an evangelical minister spoke about saving unborn children. During another official convention event, a "faith caucus" on Tuesday, a former congressman urged the elimination of 95% of all abortions in the next decade.

On the fiery issue of abortion, the Democratic Party has been taking small but notable steps to the right -- continuing to vigorously support abortion rights but adding more support for family-planning and other educational services that would "reduce the need for abortions."

These steps, some begun years ago, are part of the emphasis the party will place in the rest of the campaign on wooing religious voters, many of whom have been unwilling in the past to vote for a Democrat because of the party's long-standing belief that women should be allowed to end their pregnancies at will.

"In 2004, we couldn't get a word in. This time, they reached out to us," says Kristen Day, executive director of Democrats for Life, a six-year-old advocacy organization that sponsored a convention gathering that featured antiabortion Democratic Rep. Lincoln Davis of Tennessee. "The big tent is opening up."

The platform states that the party "strongly and unequivocally supports Roe v. Wade," the 1973 Supreme Court decision affirming abortion rights, "and a woman's right to choose a safe and legal abortion." But it asserts that the party "also strongly supports access to comprehensive affordable family planning services and age-appropriate sex education" that "help reduce the number of unintended pregnancies and thereby also reduce the need for abortions." About 1.2 million abortions are performed each year in the U.S.

"This platform, for the first time, acknowledges and supports a decision to exercise choice in a different direction, to carry a child to term," says Michael Yaki, the national platform director for the Democratic National Committee. "The core value, a woman's right to choose, has not been compromised at all."

Some members of women's groups say they fear the Democrats are retreating just to capture evangelical and Catholic voters who flocked to President George W. Bush during the 2004 election.

"It pains me that our party holds this pro-life view," says Marjorie Signer, a spokeswoman for the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, a national nonprofit group made up of groups from 15 denominations. "I have a big problem reducing the number" of abortions. How would that be achieved, she asks -- "by cutting off access and making [abortion] impossible to get?"

Antiabortion groups are pressing for a more radical shift. Ms. Day says her goal for 2012 is "not having strong Roe v. Wade language in the platform."

The Rev. Jim Wallis, an evangelical minister from Washington, D.C., who advocates greater support for the poor, and who is at the convention conducting faith meetings, said the party cannot ignore the number of voters for whom abortion is a nonnegotiable issue.

"I know people see it as a rollback. I don't think it is. It's the possibility of common ground," said Mr. Wallis, who advises politicians in both parties. "Can the Democrats count votes?....There are millions of votes at stake here."

The catalyst for the shift was the 2004 election, experts say, when Sen. John Kerry, who backed abortion rights, lost the voting among almost every major religious group identified in exit polls, especially white and African-American evangelicals and Latino Catholics.

President Bush strongly opposes abortion. But antiabortion advocates have said they felt burned by Mr. Bush, who, despite a former Republican majority in Congress, wasn't able to pass legislation that would have severely restricted the procedure. With religious voters unhappy over the Bush administration's handling of the economy and the war in Iraq, Democrats and liberal advocacy organizations began pushing to make inroads into that voting bloc.

More than a year ago, Third Way, a four-year-old liberal think tank in Washington, D.C., contacted the Rev. Joel Hunter, a Republican evangelical minister from Florida, in an effort to find common ground on the abortion issue. Mr. Hunter later shared his views in the drafting of the Democrats' abortion platform.

Party members also cite the invitation to abortion opponent Sen. Robert Casey Jr. of Pennsylvania to address delegates during prime time. Kim Gandy, president of the National Organization for Women, says she was "personally disappointed" that he was allowed to speak Tuesday, a day the party had set aside to celebrate "women's equality."