Democrats' abortion plank misconstrues will, beliefs of most Americans

This story appears in the Election 2016 feature series. View the full series.

by Steven A. Krueger

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Every four years the major political parties adopt a party platform, which includes policy positions, or planks, on numerous issues, including abortion. The Democratic Party's abortion plank has historically included language that has reflected, however imperfectly, the breadth and depth of this moral issue. Prior years’ abortion planks have included language that recognizes "the religious and ethical concerns" of Americans, respects our "individual conscience," supports efforts to "reduce unintended pregnancies," embraces "the goal of ... [making] abortion less necessary" and asserts, "Abortion should be safe, legal, and rare."

It was disheartening, then, to me as both a Catholic and a Democrat, to see the abortion plank in the 2016 Democratic Platform. Not only is the language and tone one-sided on this morally complex issue, it also brazenly proposes to repeal both the Hyde and Helms Amendments, which prohibit the use of federal tax dollars for abortion, domestically and abroad.

As a progressive Catholic, I believe the unequivocal repeal of these amendments eliminates the legitimate moral concerns about abortion that have been present in our national policies for over four decades. As a Democrat, I believe the plank represents an unforced political error. A recent Marist Poll, which found that 68 percent of U.S adults oppose the use of tax dollars for abortion, strongly suggests the plank runs counter to the will of the American people.

As the head of Catholic Democrats, I am asked by people on the Right, "How can you be a Catholic and a Democrat?" Our name raises an eyebrow for people on the Left as well, who want to know where we stand on abortion. Our response can be unsatisfying to both. The Catholic Social Justice Tradition, reinvigorated by Pope Francis, is the basis for our mission. It guides our approach in consultation with Catholic theologians and canonists, in accord with our conscience and prudential judgment. This leads us to consistently advocate for a position that both opposes criminalizing abortion and supports polices that will reduce unintended pregnancies and help a woman bring her pregnancy to term, including pre- and post-natal support, and programs to encourage adoption. We believe this strategy is both the most caring and effective way to decrease abortions. The historical data bears this out: according to the Guttmacher Institute, "Restrictive [abortion] laws do not stop women from having abortions."

The platform states, "We need to defend the ACA [the Affordable Care Act] ..." However, the ACA was negotiated with the understanding, from all sides, that the status quo would be preserved when it comes to abortion policy. There were both inter- and intra-party disagreements as to what constituted the status quo, particularly with respect to the fungibility of funds, but there was little, if any, disagreement that Hyde was at the heart of the debate. The proposed repeal of the Hyde Amendment in the 2016 platform endangers the legacy of President Barack Obama’s greatest legislative achievement by dismantling the moral footing upon which the ACA rests with respect to abortion.

The Hyde and Helms Amendments, a kind of legislative stare decisis, parallels and balances that of Roe v. Wade. One Catholic sister who supported the ACA recently said that Hyde is "the best thing that we have to ensure a value of life in federal funding ... [it allows] various perspectives to flourish in our society." Let’s not forget, it was the Catholic nuns who provided the most notable and courageous support for the ACA in opposition to the US Catholic bishops. That support was predicated on preserving Hyde.

Beyond this, however, the Democratic constituency that pushed this abortion plank through neglected to consider either the opinions of the American public or the moral message that it conveys.

Data from both the Pew Research Center and the Public Religion Research Institute show that although a majority of Americans support the legalization of abortion (53 percent legal in all or most cases versus 40 percent), they also find it to be morally wrong (36 percent morally acceptable and not a moral issue versus 52 percent morally wrong). This represents a significant divergence of opinion between legality and morality. Additionally, 36 percent of U.S. adults have an overlapping identity, simultaneously defining themselves as "pro-choice" and "pro-life." Even Millennials are conflicted -- in a PRRI focus group over half expressed a word opposing abortion.

Taken together, a significant number of U.S. adults hold views on abortion that are nuanced, ambiguous and cognitively dissonant. The Democratic platform should reflect that.

Faith remains part of the American way of life. We have distinguished ourselves in the developed world: as our national per capita GDP has increased, we have not experienced the commensurate decline in religiosity experienced by other developed nations. Even as the number of religiously unaffiliated people increases every year, the American character has stubbornly held on to that part of our national identity formed in faith.

It would be prudent for the Democratic Party to be mindful of this, given how it is perceived in the court of public opinion. For some time now, Democrats have been seen as being both consistently less friendly and more unfriendly to religion than the GOP, however unwarranted I believe these views to be. With respect to abortion, Democrats passed the Pregnant Women Support Act, reliably fund programs for pregnant women and women and children in need at higher levels than the GOP, and can boast higher rates of decline in abortion under Democratic administrations.

Nonetheless, public opinion is what it is. This abortion plank only further entrenches the idea that Democrats don’t value religious belief as much as the Republicans do.

Making this more lamentable, the Platform Committee could have proposed other options -- such as a proposal that the Hyde Amendment cover the health as well as the life of the mother. Instead, in its zeal to repeal Hyde, the Platform Committee overreached and was surprisingly successful. Unfortunately, there will likely be adverse short and long-term consequences.

Short-term, although Secretary Clinton may escape down-side repercussions, given Donald Trump’s negative favorability ratings, it will likely hurt Democrats in some down-ballot races, particularly in states with significant Catholic populations. Ironically, this may diminish the Democrats’ chances of taking back Congress, without which this proposal could never pass. Even if the Democrats do take back Congress, it is still unlikely to pass. There is too much exposure for too many Democrats.

Long-term, it raises the question: IS the Democratic Party at a tipping point on this moral issue? Several Democratic organizations, including Catholic Democrats, and other key Democrats appealed to the Platform Committee to make changes to the abortion plank. None were accepted. At the same time, “big-tent” language was agreed to in the trade plank that stated, "On the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), there are a diversity of views in the party." This raises the broader question of how much room there is in the Democratic Party for all faith communities to bring their views to the table, and how sensitive the party will be to them.

In response to Donald Trump’s campaign slogan, Secretary Clinton prophetically asserted that, "We don’t need to make America great again. America has never stopped being great. But, we do need to make America whole again." Now Democrats must ask themselves, "Do we believe we can make our country whole again without faith and religion playing a vital role?"

I hope not. Let this plank be a wake-up call.

[Steven A. Krueger is the president of Catholic Democrats, an advocacy organization whose mission is to advance the Catholic Social Justice Tradition in the public square and within the Democratic Party.]

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