Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Abortion, Democrats and Change Over Time

After watching the first night of the Democratic National Convention I was struck by just how much time was devoted to reproductive rights and the pro-choice agenda.  It did not surprise me that the Democrats came to Charlotte prepared to defend a pro-choice position, but I was surprised at just how pro-active they were about it. Speakers included the president of NARAL and the head of Planned Parenthood.  Two pro-choice videos were shown.

As Ashley McGuire recently wrote in The National Review, "The message is clear: Democrats think the way to a woman's heart, and her vote, is through doing away with the rights of the unborn."  In fact, the Democratic committee has made it clear that it will not welcome "differing positions" on the issue  of abortion.

As a historian, I am always struck by the way the Democratic Party has, over the last thirty years or so, changed its position on life issues.  In the 1960s and early 1970s the Democrats were more pro-life than the Republican Party.  For example, New England Planned Parenthood once supported Republican candidates in state elections. Pro-choice advocates found Ted Kennedy's traditional views on abortion to be "thoroughly revolting."  The Democratic Party built its 20th-century coalition around the defense of the laboring classes, the traditional family, and the reproductive values of ethnic American Catholics.

As David Swartz argues in his forthcoming book, Moral Minority: The Evangelical Left in an Age of Conservatism, all of this changed in the mid-1970s.  Many on the Left, for example, opposed  Jimmy Carter's pro-life views.  Carter called abortion "wrong" and made it clear that his personal convictions were at odds with the Roe v Wade decision.  By 1980 Democrats had officially endorsed a pro-choice position.  Ted Kennedy reversed his views on abortion and other pro-life Democrats such as John Kerry, Dennis Kucinich, Mario Cuomo, Joe Biden, Bill Clinton, Jesse Jackson, Paul Simon and Al Gore did the same.

It seems to me that this historical change puts the Democratic Party in a very awkward moral position today--one that it seems unwilling to address. According to a recent Gallup Poll, about one-third of Democrats identify themselves as pro-life.  The leadership of a party that has historically been committed to protecting the weakest and most vulnerable members of society have agreed to turn their collective backs on unborn children, refused to promote diversity and dialogue on life issues, and failed to represent a significant portion of its constituency.

This is not your father or grandfather's Democratic Party.