Abortion litmus test: Democrats slide back into culture-war politics

Pro-life advocates hold signs Jan. 27 during the annual March for Life in Washington. (CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn)

Ilyse Hogue knows best. The president of NARAL Pro-Choice America tore into Sen. Bernie Sanders for joining in a rally for Democratic mayoral candidate Heath Mello in Omaha, Nebraska. The rally was part of the "Unity Tour" sponsored by the Democratic National Committee, featuring Sanders and new DNC chair Tom Perez, although Perez did not attend the actual rally in Omaha.

"The actions today by the DNC to embrace and support a candidate for office who will strip women — one of the most critical constituencies for the party — of our basic rights and freedom is not only disappointing, it is politically stupid," said Ms. Hogue. If the Democrats are to be unified, it will be on her terms, and her terms are that the Democratic Party impose a litmus test on the issue of abortion rights. And, Sen. Sanders, whose voting record is 100 percent-approved by Hogue's organization, had best toe her line.

Actually, that is not exactly correct. Mr. Mello has stated publicly that he supports a woman's legal right to procure an abortion, but that he is personally opposed to abortion. Whatever you think of the distinction Mello draws, and I think it is very weak, it is hard to square his actual position with Hogue's characterization of his position.

The sin against the abortion rights' canon that Mello committed was to support a law in the Nebraska legislature that required doctors to inform women seeking an abortion that they had a right to receive an ultrasound beforehand. How is that not "pro-choice"? The law did not compel women to get an ultrasound as a condition for getting an abortion. It simply gave them information that an ultrasound was available. For this, Mello is accused of supporting efforts to "strip women" of the right to an abortion.

Hogue is a proponent of a more aggressive stance by the pro-choice activists. She took to the stage at the Democratic National Convention last summer and spoke openly about having procured an abortion. Like Katha Pollitt in her book, Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights, Hogue's strategy is to demonize anyone who does not support the abortions rights agenda 100 percent and to insist that women stop buying into the idea that the decision to get an abortion is so fraught, and that the Democrats drop the "rare" in Bill Clinton's triptych: Abortion should be "safe, legal and rare." Hillary Clinton echoed that phrase during her 2008 race, but she dropped the "rare" last year, showing the influence of those arguing for a more aggressive posture.

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To give you some idea of just how myopic Hogue is, compare her comments about Mello and the DNC support for him with her own comments in an article in TeenVogue. There, she wrote of her decision to get an abortion:

My best and closest friend at the time — and still today — is Catholic. And I thought she would think I was going to hell if I told her. But when I did tell her, she was absolutely nothing but supportive — so that shattered another myth. Even though at the time she thought she would never do the same thing herself, she had empathy. I feel like the complexity of human relationships gets lost in the abortion debate. People do understand this to be a very personal decision, and their own thoughts about what they would do and what they see as right or wrong aren't things they would actually impose on other people.

She appreciated the empathy she received, but is unwilling to offer any such empathy to the good Democrats of Omaha: They must either side with her agenda in toto, or she will divide the Democratic Party.

Compare her dogmatism with Sen. Sanders' explanation of his support for Mello. Appearing on CBS's "Face the Nation," Sanders said, "If you have a rally in which you have the labor movement and environmentalists and Native Americans and the African American community and the Latino community coming together saying, 'We want this guy to become our next mayor,' should I reject going there to Omaha? I don't think so. It was a great rally, and I hope very much he wins."

No one comes off looking worse from his episode than Mr. Perez. He echoed Sanders' sentiments at first and then, in a series of subsequent statements, pulled back and started mimicking Hogue's intransigence. "Every Democrat, like every American, should support a woman's right to make her own choices about her body and her health," Perez said in a statement. "That is not negotiable and should not change city by city or state by state." Perez looked weak, like he was caving to a special interest, which only feeds the narrative that the Democrats are beholden to pro-choice activists. And, there goes the 50-state strategy to which Perez if pledged. In large swaths of the country, pro-life Democrats are the only Democrats who can win.

There are times when a party can and should take an absolute stand on an issue. In 1948, the Democratic National Convention adopted a strong civil rights plank and the delegation from Mississippi, and half the delegation from Alabama, walked out. (Check out the whole video, which includes Harry Truman's great opening in his acceptance speech.) But abortion is simply not like other issues. Sen. Sanders understands that what unites Democrats fundamentally must be a commitment to a different, and more just, economic system. That unity must not be thrown overboard because Hogue insists on doctrinal purity on abortion.

Democrats lost the White House precisely because the smart people in the Beltway and in Brooklyn forgot that many people outside those precincts do not think the way they do. For many of us, abortion is an infamy, as the Second Vatican Council stated. We are not anti-women. We are not unsympathetic to the plight of women facing a crisis pregnancy. According to Hogue and, sadly, now Perez, there appears to be no room for us in the Democratic Party. That means the Democrats will continue fighting the culture wars. It is a recipe for remaining a minority party.

[Michael Sean Winters is NCR Washington columnist and a visiting fellow at Catholic University's Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies.]


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