For Democrats, abortion revisited

The party that lost on Nov. 2 wrestles with how to add nuance on a key cultural divide in America.

For Democrats who favor abortion rights - that is, most of the party - this week may carry the sensation of standing on the edge of a cliff: President Bush has just been sworn in for four more years, and it's possible he will get to nominate enough new Supreme Court justices to overturn Roe v. Wade, the landmark ruling that legalized abortion nationwide 32 years ago Saturday.

But embedded in this week of inauguration and stock-taking lies a central irony: At a time when abortion-rights forces are feeling an acute sense of peril, they are also being asked to reframe the way abortion is discussed - including being more receptive to Democrats who oppose abortion.

"I have long believed that we ought to make a home for pro-life Democrats," Howard Dean, a leading candidate to become the next Democratic Party chairman, said on "Meet the Press" last month. While calling himself "strongly pro-choice," he urged respect for antiabortion Democrats whose policy positions, such as support for children's programs, are "often lacking on the Republican side.

"We can change our vocabulary," he concluded, "but I don't think we ought to change our principles."

Governor Dean's remarks - and others by Democratic strategists and politicians, including Sen. John Kerry - did not sit well with many abortion-rights activists. But there is no doubt that, after last November's election in which the party lost ground among cultural conservatives, the beginnings of a Democratic dialogue are taking place over how better to connect with middle America on this divisive issue.

"The perception among some voters that Democrats are tone-deaf secularists is costing us big-time," says William Galston, a University of Maryland professor and former policy adviser to President Clinton. "So I think that how we talk about abortion and other issues is part of a much bigger picture. The Democrats can win as the party of tolerance; they cannot win as the party of secularism."

The messages of last year's vote

Some Democrats, including those who oppose abortion rights, point to Clinton's mantra that abortion should be "safe, legal, and rare" as the winning formulation. In a press-club speech last week, Sen. Ted Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts spoke in those terms. He won praise from Democratic activists ranging from Kate Michelman, a longtime abortion-rights leader, to Jim Wallis, an evangelical Christian whose focus is fighting poverty, but who also opposes abortion.

Still, for many in the abortion-rights movement, talk of rethinking the issue - including the suggestion that the party give up its absolute opposition to policies that don't infringe on core abortion rights, such as parental-notification laws - provokes ire. They see this effort to reframe the debate as a misreading of the last election, particularly the vague exit-poll question that identified 22 percent of voters as having voted on "moral values."

"Abortion really wasn't an issue in the last election," says Vicki Saporta, president of the National Abortion Federation. "The majority of Americans remain pro-choice, and believe Roe should remain in place."

Karen White, political director of the pro-abortion-rights political-action committee EMILY's List, sees some Democrats "using choice as a scapegoat for our top-of-the-ticket losses in November." The group presents polling data that show abortion ranking in the low single digits among the most important issues in the election, well behind Iraq, national security, and the economy.

To political centrists, those numbers miss the point. It was a basket of cultural issues, including abortion, gay marriage, guns, and religion, that hurt Senator Kerry in important swing states like Ohio. Indeed, says John Green, an expert on the role of religion in politics at the University of Akron, Kerry might not have lost some traditional Catholic votes if he hadn't had a 100 percent pro-abortion-rights voting record.

The benefits of flexibility

Having top party members calling themselves prolife, such as new Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid, isn't enough, says Professor Green. "There might be some additional advantage, symbolically, to say, 'We're going to be a little more flexible on this issue and we welcome people into our ranks who disagree with us on this issue, because they might agree with us on other issues,' " he says.

Having Senator Reid of Nevada as the top Senate Democrat is one thing, especially given his promise not to challenge the party's core plank on abortion, and creates the feeling of the "big tent" both parties say they want. But the candidacy of former Rep. Tim Roemer (D) of Indiana, who also opposes abortion, to head the Democratic National Committee (DNC) is too much for the abortion-rights movement. When Mr. Roemer put his name forward, Ms. Michelman contemplated her own DNC run before deciding against.

But the Democratic debate over how to discuss abortion more effectively - especially in "red" Repblican states - will continue long after the DNC election on Feb. 12. Frances Kissling, head of Catholics for Free Choice and author of a 7,400-word essay outlining how Democrats can make concessions on abortion without sacrificing their core beliefs, says the movement has to get over its fear of the "slippery slope."

Ms. Kissling calls for a new discourse that "will permit us to acknowledge both women's rights and needs and our basic respect for all human life, including fetal life."

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