Skepticism from pro-life advocates and condemnation from pro-choicers greeted a key Democrat’s announcement that abortion will not be a litmus test for congressional candidates.
Both sides of the divisive issue reacted after the head of the Democrats’ campaign apparatus in the House of Representatives said the party will provide financial support for candidates who oppose abortion rights.
“There is not a litmus test for Democratic candidates,” Rep. Ben Ray Luján, D-N.M., chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said in a July 31 article in The Hill newspaper. “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.”
The assertion by a Democratic official came a year after the party adopted what some observers described as its most pro-abortion platform ever. The party not only reiterated its full support for the right to abortion but called for federal funding of the procedure, setting forth the latest example of the dominance of abortion rights within the party.
Pro-life organizations were hesitant, at best, to embrace Luján’s announcement as an indication of meaningful change.
“The Democratic Party has, sadly, been in lockstep with Planned Parenthood and the abortion industrial complex,” said Daniel Darling of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) in written comments for Baptist Press. “We are skeptical of this new openness, but are cautiously optimistic about the opportunity for a pro-life presence among Democrats.
“Ultimately we pray for the day when to be champions for the unborn is truly bipartisan and for the day when to be pro-choice is unthinkable in a renewed culture of life,” said Darling, the ERLC’s vice president for communications and author of a forthcoming book on human dignity.
Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List, said Democrats have “an enormous problem on their hands and one that a papered-over solution or postures will not fix.”
Luján’s announcement is “not the same as concrete policy endorsements,” Dannenfelser said in a written statement. “Only changes in the party platform that represent majority views and momentum, like that of [pro-life legislation], will signify true change.”
Meanwhile, Planned Parenthood – the country’s No. 1 abortion provider – and other pro-choice advocates blasted the news.
“Women’s health & rights are non-negotiable – incl. access to safe, legal abortion. We’ll hold any politician who says otherwise accountable,” Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards said on Twitter.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York tweeted, “We do not have to make compromises on protecting women’s health to win back the House or Senate.”
A coalition of pro-choice and other liberal organizations released a statement Aug. 2 opposing Democrats who remain pro-life.
If pro-life legislators “vote to restrict abortion access or contraceptive access, they then undercut the party platform and they undercut the welfare of women,” according to the coalition’s statement. “We strive for and believe in personal evolution and growth so, if they have voted to do so in the past, the burden of proof is upon them through subsequent votes and/or public statements – not in the heat of a campaign – but prior to running for office or re-election.”
Among the signers of the statement were NARAL Pro-choice America, Planned Parenthood Action Fund, EMILY’s List, Democracy for America, Daily Kos and the American Federation of Teachers.
At least one Democratic organization – Democrats for Life of America – applauded the development.
“We have been advocating for years that the Democratic Party needs to open itself up to the viewpoints of more than 20 million pro-life Democrats,” said Kristen Day, executive director of Democrats for Life of America.
“Our party, which advocates for diversity and inclusion, has been sending mixed messages about inclusion for its pro-life members,” she said in written comments. “This very strong statement from the campaign arm of the party, clearly eliminating the litmus test, shows me that Democrats are serious about winning again.”
Democrats – who have won the House only twice in the last 12 elections, 2006 and 2008 – have long been identified as the pro-abortion, a label they acquired as the years passed following the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that legalized the procedure throughout the country.
As abortion rights became a pillar of the Democratic platform after Roe, the party’s national candidates often reversed themselves on the issue to help their electoral chances. Former Vice President Al Gore, Rep. Richard Gephardt and Jesse Jackson were among those Democrats who switched from the pro-life to the pro-choice position as their political aspirations grew.
The number of pro-life Democrats in Congress has shrunk in the post-Roe era. Now only a few – such as Reps. Daniel Lipinski of Illinois, Collin Peterson of Minnesota and Henry Cuellar of Texas – could be considered pro-life.
This surrender within the party to abortion rights and abortion rights organizations has come despite about one-fifth to one-third of Democrats identifying as pro-life. In a 2011 report, Gallup said 32 percent of Democrats consider themselves pro-life. In a survey conducted in June of this year, the Pew Research Center reported 22 percent of Democrats said abortion should be illegal in all or most cases.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Tom Strode is the Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press, news service of the Southern Baptist Convention.)