Looking past Roe: Can ‘pro-life Democrats’ still find home in party?

Why We Wrote This

Are abortion rights now a litmus test for the Democratic Party? Democrats who oppose abortion say they feel like they must choose between their religious beliefs and their chosen political identity.

Melinda Deslatte/AP
Katrina Jackson, a Democratic state senator in Louisiana, talks to reporters in Baton Rouge on May 21, 2019, about her bill asking voters to add language to the state constitution declaring that it doesn't protect abortion rights. Louisiana voters will decide the issue, but not until the November 2020 presidential election.

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They appear to be among the most endangered political species in America. Only four are left in Congress. The very term – “pro-life Democrat” – sounds like an oxymoron, and their existence often triggers heated debate within their party.

Yet a case to be argued before the Supreme Court on March 4 shows their enduring power. At the heart of June Medical Services LLC v. Gee is Act 620, a measure written by a Democratic lawmaker from Louisiana and signed into law by that state’s Democratic governor. Act 620 requires doctors who provide abortions to gain legal permission to admit patients at a hospital within 30 miles of their abortion clinic.

If the high court finds the law constitutional, Louisiana will be left with only one abortion provider. The hearing, and the 2020 elections close behind, has brought new urgency to the tension over abortion within the Democratic Party.

Democrats against abortion say that a party that prides itself on diversity and inclusion should be able to reconcile support for women’s bodily autonomy with sincerely held religious beliefs about – or at least moral uncertainty over – the procedure. Abortion rights advocates argue that such a party cannot defend policies that prevent women from access to the full range of choices regarding their own bodies.

“We would never say, ‘We value the environment and clean air, but we welcome pro-coal people as a strength,’” says Pamela Merritt, a longtime liberal activist. “So why would we ever say it about abortion?”

At first glance, they appear to be among the most endangered political species in America. Only four are left in Congress. The very term – “pro-life Democrat” – sounds like an oxymoron. And their existence often triggers heated debate within their party, their position shunted to the side in ways they say they did not experience even a decade ago.

Yet a case to be argued before the U.S. Supreme Court on March 4 shows their enduring power. At the heart of June Medical Services LLC v. Gee is Act 620, a measure written by a Democratic lawmaker from Louisiana and signed into law by that state’s Democratic governor. Act 620 requires doctors who provide abortions to gain admitting privileges – or legal permission to admit patients – at a hospital within 30 miles of their abortion clinic.

If the high court finds the law constitutional, Louisiana will be left with only one abortion provider. It could also, critics say, set a standard that would all but remove the right to abortion access.

Which is what the law’s author, state Sen. Katrina Jackson, has advocated her whole career.

“I plan on standing with our attorney general to argue in favor of this law,” she said in a phone interview with the Monitor in 2019. “I will be taking calls from people, responding to emails, talking to my colleagues, posting on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and trying to encourage everyone to take the pro-life stance. It’s what I always do.”

Not long ago, Senator Jackson’s views would not have been too out of sync with her party’s. When the nonprofit Democrats for Life of America was founded in the early 2000s, it listed more than 40 members of Congress in its coalition. As recently as 2008, Hillary Clinton was campaigning on making abortion “safe, legal, and rare” – which still acknowledged, and tried to appeal to, Democratic voters who had moral doubts about the procedure.

As the ideological distance between the two parties have grown, however, the space for internal dissent on hot-button issues like abortion has shrunk. The GOP has unequivocally become the party against abortion. The Democratic Party, meanwhile, has had to wrestle with whether or not it can continue to make room for lawmakers like Ms. Jackson, who says she only splits with the platform on this one issue and has no desire to become a Republican.

Democrats against abortion say that a party that prides itself on diversity and inclusion should be able to reconcile support for women’s bodily autonomy with sincerely held religious beliefs about – or at least moral uncertainty over – the procedure. Abortion rights advocates argue that such a party cannot defend policies that prevent women – often poor, nonwhite women – from access to the full range of choices regarding their own bodies, including the decision of when and whether or not to parent.

Now, with June Medical on the docket and the 2020 elections fast on its heels, this intraparty tension has taken on new urgency. Progressive advocates say candidates must commit to fighting the wave of legal restrictions the procedure faces at the state and national levels, and recognize the socioeconomic and racial realities experienced by women seeking abortion. They’re convinced that those ideas are a cornerstone of the Democratic Party’s future, and that explaining them clearly to voters is a winning strategy.

Democrats for Life is pushing back hard. They’re recruiting candidates who are willing to both stand against abortion and advocate comprehensive supports for women – including policies around contraception and paid family leave. They argue that it’s about defending life “from womb to tomb,” a philosophy they say is consistent with Democratic positions on everything from the role of social safety net programs to minimum wage increases to the death penalty.

And they worry that by excluding abortion opponents from the party, national Democrats are alienating crucial swing voters in a pivotal election year.

“We’re supposed to be the big-tent party, so it’s mystifying to me that we’re really not,” says Kristen Day, executive director of Democrats for Life. “We’ve got to take the party back.”

Ann Hermes/Staff
Joan Barry, a former Missouri state legislator shown here in her St. Louis home on December 10, 2019, led an effort to insert language into the state Democratic Party platform asserting that its members “have sometimes different positions” on abortion.

The Missouri dispute

Perhaps nowhere has the Democratic conflict over abortion played out more clearly than in Missouri, a state once called a “barometer of the American middle.”

In 2018, former state legislator Joan Barry led an effort to insert language into the state Democratic Party platform asserting that its members “have sometimes different positions” on the issue. This diversity of views, the statement added, is “a strength.” The attempt triggered a furious debate over the party’s commitment to reproductive rights. It ended with members overwhelmingly voting down Ms. Barry’s proposal at a public meeting that summer.

The dispute left a bitter aftertaste. When the midterm elections took place a few months later, Missouri’s two-term Democratic senator Claire McCaskill lost her seat to conservative Republican Josh Hawley. State Democrats bickered over the reason: Some said it was partly because Senator McCaskill had publicly supported abortion rights. Others shot back that it was because she hadn’t defended them enough.

The thought of Democrats fighting among themselves over reproductive rights makes Pamela Merritt sigh over her cinnamon roll. The longtime liberal activist – who was a member of the platform reform committee during the 2018 dispute – maintains that Ms. Barry and her allies at Democrats for Life hijacked a year’s worth of difficult deliberations in order to foist a conservative agenda onto the party.

Isn’t it enough, she asks, that Missouri is one of the most abortion-restrictive states in the nation? As of January, state law requires women to wait 72 hours between mandatory in-person counseling and the actual procedure, parental consent for minors seeking an abortion, and an array of logistical standards that providers must meet before they are licensed to perform abortions. Only one abortion clinic has been active in Missouri since 2018.

“We would never say, ‘We value the environment and clean air, but we welcome pro-coal people as a strength,’” Ms. Merritt says over breakfast at a cafe in St. Louis’ Shaw neighborhood. “We would never say, ‘We value our LGBTQ party members but we welcome people who support conversion therapy as a strength.’ So why would we ever say it about abortion?”

In her view, Democrats need to give voters the opportunity to understand why the right to choose when to parent is crucial for women, for families, and for society. Do that, she says, and they will reward your trust. Ms. Merritt points to recent Democratic victories in Virginia, where in November the party took control of all three branches of the state government for the first time in a quarter-century. As part of the campaign, Planned Parenthood’s political arm in Virginia spent more than $1 million on candidates who supported abortion access. Abortion rights activists called it a victory for the cause.

Ms. Merritt chafes at Missouri Democrats’ reluctance to take a similar course. “Rather than learn how to talk about this and educate potential constituents … we’re just going to pretend like it’s not workable,” she says.

At her home in the suburbs just outside St. Louis, Ms. Barry, dressed in a lavender sweater and dark slacks, shakes her head.

Like many moderate Democrats, she holds the view that focusing on abortion could antagonize voters in relatively conservative places like Missouri. Abortion did flare briefly ahead of the 2018 midterms, during the controversial Senate confirmation of Justice Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. But it was kitchen-table issues like health care that energized voters in swing districts and won Democrats control of the U.S. House of Representatives that year – not abortion.

Why not try to sway voters with those issues, instead of pushing Democrats like her away?

“They think that everybody feels like them, and that’s not true,” Ms. Barry says of abortion rights advocates. “We should not be ostracized. We belong in there.”

A home for the movement?

Where Missouri is a battleground for Democrats for Life, Louisiana is about as close as its members have to a stronghold. The state’s brand of socially conscious religious conservatism is fertile ground for abortion opponents of all political stripes. More than half of Louisiana residents, including nearly 40% of Democrats, say abortion should be illegal in all or most cases, according to a 2016 survey. (Nationally, nearly two-thirds of Americans say abortion should be legal in all or most cases, with 76% of Democrats in agreement.)

The governor, John Bel Edwards, is one of the organization’s most prominent members.

In this environment, Ms. Jackson, the Democratic state senator, has bloomed into a star. Born and raised in Monroe, Louisiana – a city of about 48,000 – she grew up in a household that placed great store by duty to God and to community. Prayer and fasting mark her life milestones, including the decision to run for the state legislature in 2011. She hails from a family of Democrats, and feels strongly about her party’s commitment to defending the marginalized.

“They still fight for those who can’t fight for themselves,” she says.

She draws a hard line at abortion. To her, it’s unequivocal: Abortion is murder, and murder goes against God’s will. Over two terms as a state representative – she joined the Senate in 2019 – Ms. Jackson put her name to a slew of laws that have made headlines and drawn furious protests from abortion rights activists in Louisiana and nationwide.

Act 620, which passed in 2014, is among her crowning achievements.

“One of my best moments in the legislature was when this bill came up for final passage … and almost 80-some members, both Democrat and Republican, stood at the mic with me to pass this bill,” she says. “It showed a unity in the state of Louisiana that is not often seen.”

The experience also came with angry phone calls, nasty social media posts, even death threats that forced her to hire police to ensure the safety of her staff. But Ms. Jackson refuses to budge on the issue. “To the extent that the party is on the wrong side of an issue – and what I mean by the wrong side is that they veer away from the Christian faith – then I have to stand with God,” she says.

“That doesn’t mean that I don’t support the party,” she adds. “[But] I will not choose the party over God.”

Fighting for a place

To Ms. Day at Democrats for Life, Ms. Jackson is a model of leadership. “That’s exactly what we need at this point – someone who’s solidly pro-life,” she says. The group is actively recruiting state and local candidates to run in 2020, and raising funds to support their campaigns.

Existing members have also grown bolder. Illinois Rep. Dan Lipinski, one of the few members of Congress endorsed by the organization, co-signed an amicus brief at the start of the year that urged the Supreme Court to “revisit” Roe v. Wade, the 1973 ruling that legalized abortion, “and, if appropriate, overrule it.” The move prompted Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot to announce her bid to challenge Representative Lipinski in the 2020 primary, making her the third Democrat to do so.

Democrats for Life members have also gathered at the 2020 Democratic presidential primary debates in Atlanta, Los Angeles, Houston, and elsewhere, calling on candidates to publicly recognize their views.

Some have argued that if Democrats were committed to progressive principles, they would focus on coalition building and finding common spaces on difficult issues – like abortion. Jane Kleeb, a board member of the progressive nonprofit Our Revolution, compares the challenge to early efforts to stop the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline.

Climate change activists had led the charge against the project, crying out against potential risks to the environment. But the strength of the movement came from other stakeholders, who “came to work with us on that because of eminent domain, sovereign rights, water – all sorts of reasons,” says Ms. Kleeb, who is also chair of the Nebraska Democratic Party. “If I’d said to farmers and ranchers and tribal nations: ‘You can only come to the table and work with us if you’re against Keystone XL because of climate,’” she says, the coalition wouldn’t have been possible. 

The Trump administration has since approved a right-of-way permit that would allow the pipeline to be built on U.S. lands, taking the project a step closer to reality despite activists’ efforts. Still, Ms. Kleeb says, the Democratic Party needs to think of abortion the same way.

“It’s [about] going to voters and saying, We may disagree on abortion and gun reform. Here are the 20 other areas we agree on,” she says. “You now have a choice. Do you stick with the party that agrees with you on those two issues, but completely abandoned you on these other 20?”

Jeff Roberson/AP
Pamela Merritt, a reproductive rights advocate, speaks to supporters on May 30, 2019, in St. Louis. Since 2018 Missouri has had only one active abortion clinic. Ms. Merritt calls Democrats for Life a “messaging machine” that’s trying to drive a wedge between the Democratic Party and the abortion rights movement.

Democratic party officials and progressive activists play down the notion of a rift over abortion within the party. In an email, a spokeswoman for the Democratic National Committee affirmed the organization’s commitment to supporting women’s right to choose. The Missouri Democratic Party said in a separate statement that while it recognizes that Democrats hold a range of beliefs, “we can come together and support reproductive rights.”

Ms. Merritt in St. Louis dismisses Democrats for Life as a “messaging machine” that’s trying to drive a wedge between the Democratic Party and the abortion rights movement.

“People who try to advance reproductive oppression must be met, every single time they do it, with resistance,” she says.

And despite all the steps they’re taking ahead of 2020, Democrats who want the party to reverse itself on abortion have a steep climb ahead. Louisiana is an anomaly; nationwide, 82% of Democrats and Democratic-leaning voters say abortion should be legal in all or most cases, according to the Pew Research Center. Among party moderates, the figure dips a bit to 75%; among liberals, it surges to 91%.

Ms. Barry knows this. At a November meeting of the Oakville Democratic Organization in St. Louis County, where Ms. Barry serves as committeewoman, she gently asks the Monitor to avoid bringing up abortion. Later, she admits that her work on the platform hurt some of her relationships with other party members. “It’s still very sad to think that my party feels that everyone should be included, except someone who is pro-life,” she says.

“I believe in what the Democratic Party stands for,” she adds. “But I also believe that I need to be known as a member of that party.”

Staff writer Sarah Matusek contributed to this report from Oakville, Missouri. 

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