Last week, New Mexico Rep. Ben Ray Luján, the Democratic Congressional Campaign chairman, announced there will be no litmus test based on abortion for Democrats seeking office in 2018.
“As we look at candidates across the country, you need to make sure you have candidates that fit the district, that can win in these districts across America,” Luján said.
This attention to local values and interests was the crux of Howard Dean’s “50 state strategy,” which earned victories nationwide for the party in 2006 and 2008. As Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez put it back in April: “To execute a 50-state strategy, we need to understand what’s going on in all 50 states, and attract candidates who are consistent with their messages but perhaps not on 100 percent of the issues . . . If you demand fealty on every single issue, then it’s a challenge.”
Still, many Democrats were horrified by Luján’s remarks. “Shame on Democrats backing anti-choice candidates,” Guardian writer Jamie Peck declared, for acting “as if issues like abortion don’t have profound economic implications.”
“Of course abortion should be a litmus test for Democrats,” New York Times contributing columnist Lindy West added. “There is no recognizable version of the Democratic Party that does not fight unequivocally against half its constituents’ being stripped of ownership of their own bodies and lives.” Plenty more chimed in along those lines.
But when Democrats or others on the left bash the party for funding Democratic candidates with whom they disagree on abortion, they miss a key point: Democrats who oppose abortion aren’t like Republicans who oppose abortion. Not only are their priorities different, so are their policies. While Republicans who oppose abortion usually aim simply at banning the practice or making it difficult, Democrats who oppose abortion tend to take a whole-life approach, and to focus especially on reducing incentives to have abortions, rather than creating penalties.
Consider Peck’s allegation that by funding candidates who oppose abortion, the Democratic Party is de facto refusing to consider the economic aspects of abortion. Nothing could be further from the truth. Democrats who oppose abortion are keenly aware of how many abortions are the result of financial stress and economic pressures, and we advocate constantly to reduce those burdens.
Signed into law along with the Affordable Care Act were several legislation proposals crafted by Democrats for Life of America called the Pregnant Women Support Act. We intended our proposals to reduce abortion by getting rid of many of the forces that push women toward abortion in the first place. We moved to eliminate pregnancy as a pre-existing condition for insurers, require State Child Health Insurance programs to cover mothers, fully and federally fund WIC and provide federal funding for day care. Likewise, when Senate Republicans moved last year to institute a 20-week ban on abortion, we at Democrats for Life of America urged legislators to include a paid family leave package along with the bill, with the aim of reducing financial burdens on pregnant women and their families. And in 2012, anti-abortion Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) introduced the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, a law that would ensure that pregnant women receive reasonable adjustments on the job and that they don’t face retribution for asking to be accommodated.
In other words, one of the factors that best distinguishes Democrats who oppose abortion from Republicans who do is the very fact that Democrats are cognizant of the pressures that finances and the economy can place on a person’s life, and we are invested in freeing people from them to the greatest degree possible.
But perhaps more important, it simply isn’t true that, as West implies, anti-abortion Democrats are comfortable with women “being stripped of ownership of their own bodies and lives.” If supporting pregnant women with government programs and employment protections isn’t enough proof of anti-abortion Democrats’ commitment to women’s health, safety and liberty, anti-abortion Democrats have also argued for higher minimum wages and for expanding services available to pregnant victims of domestic violence, stalking and other forms of abuse. Democrats who oppose abortion want to stop abortion, but that doesn’t entail a wholesale stripping away of women’s autonomy, as the policies outlined above indicate. And it certainly doesn’t imply a disregard for women’s lives.
The abortion debate is polarized and often extremely bitter. It’s easy to imagine that there really are only two sides: yours and the other guy’s. But Americans’ views on abortion are mostly in the gray area between always legal and never legal, and each person’s moral perspective will be nuanced by his or her own values and experiences. When Luján says that Democratic candidates who run for office in districts with strong anti-abortion leanings deserve funding from the party, he isn’t saying that the party is going to fund candidates whose positions are tantamount to those of Republicans. He’s rightly observing that Democrats — real, bona-fide Democrats — do have a range of views on abortion, and to win as many elections as possible, the party has to recognize that.
Kristen Day is the executive director of Democrats For Life of America and advocates for a pro-life voice within the Democratic Party. She wrote this for The Washington Post.