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2008 Democratic Platform a step back on abortion

August 22, 2008

The Democratic Party appears ready to take another step back on abortion, which is unfortunate given the admirable and hard work done by Democrats for Life of America. Since 2000, the Democratic Party has become ever more bent on supporting abortion rights, as well as becoming more deaf to pleas within and without the party for genuine dialogue and moderation.

In 2000, with Vice President Al Gore at the helm, it looked as though the Democratic Party was beginning to turn a corner. It devoted three paragraphs of its platform to the question of abortion. Here they are:

The Democratic Party stands behind the right of every woman to choose, consistent with Roe v. Wade, and regardless of ability to pay. We believe it is a fundamental constitutional liberty that individual Americans – not government – can best take responsibility for making the most difficult and intensely personal decisions regarding reproduction. This year’s Supreme Court rulings show to us all that eliminating a woman’s right to choose is only one justice away. That’s why the stakes in this election are as high as ever.

Our goal is to make abortion less necessary and more rare, not more difficult and more dangerous. We support contraceptive research, family planning, comprehensive family life education, and policies that support healthy childbearing. The abortion rate is dropping. Now we must continue to support efforts to reduce unintended pregnancies, and we call on all Americans to take personal responsibility to meet this important goal.

The Democratic Party is a party of inclusion. We respect the individual conscience of each American on this difficult issue, and we welcome all our members to participate at every level of our party.

In 2004, things were quite different, despite the fact that the party’s presidential nominee, Senator John Kerry, was a Catholic:

Because we believe in the privacy and equality of women, we stand proudly for a woman’s right to choose, consistent with Roe v. Wade, and regardless of her ability to pay. We stand firmly against Republican efforts to undermine that right. At the same time, we strongly support family planning and adoption incentives. Abortion should be safe, legal, and rare.

Now in 2008, the draft of Democratic Party’s platform includes only one paragraph on abortion:

The Democratic Party strongly and unequivocally supports Roe v Wade and a woman’s right to choose a safe and legal abortion, regardless of ability to pay, and we oppose any and all efforts to weaken or undermine that right.The Democratic Party also strongly supports access to affordable family planning services and comprehensive age-appropriate sex education which empower people to make informed choices and live healthy lives. We also recognize that such health care and education help reduce the number of unintended pregnancies and thereby also reduce the need for abortions. The Democratic Party also strongly supports a woman’s decision to have a child by ensuring access to and availability of programs for pre and post natal health care, parenting skills, income support, and caring adoption programs.

Let’s break down the evolution (or devolution) of the Democratic abortion plank of the platform.

Position on Roe

  • 2000: “stands behind” the right of women to choose abortion, “consistent with Roe
  • 2004: “we stand proudly behind” the right of women to choose abortion, “consistent with Roe
  • 2008: “strongly and unequivocally supports Roe v. Wade and a women’s right to choose”

In 2004, the Democratic Party felt the need to declare that it not only stands behind Roe, as it did in 2000, but that it does so “proudly.” Like it did in 2000, the Democratic Party did not identify its position on abortion with Roe, but merely stated that its position is “consistent with Roe.” However, in the 2008 draft, the Democratic Party virtually identifies its position with Roe. But that’s not all. Instead of just “standing proudly behind” Roe (2004), it now “strongly and unequivocally supports” Roe itself. This shift in language from “standing behind” to “standing proudly behind” to “strongly and unequivocally supporting” indicates that a pro-choice position is being dyed into the very fabric of the party.

Responsibility for Making Choice for Abortion

The 2000 platform indicated that the Democratic Party’s pro-choice position is attached to its belief that private individuals ought to make the choice to have an abortion without any interference from the government. The language suggested that privacy and right were the driving forces.  The 2004 platform, in contrast, makes no reference to the responsibility of a private individual, but only vaguely mentions the right to choose. The 2008 platform aligns itself with the 2004 platform in this respect. The two blur the distinction between personal, private choice and government involvement.

Reduction of the Number of Abortions

2000: “less necessary and more rare”
2004: “safe, legal, and rare”
2008: “safe and legal”

In 2000 and 2004, the Democratic Party’s platform acknowledged a desire to make abortions “rare.” However, in 2008, the draft gives no explicit mention of this desire. Also, note that the 2004 platform connects the reduction of abortions to the legality of abortion where the 2000 platform allowed its desire to reduce the number of abortions to stand apart from the question of legality.

Inclusion of Diverse Opinions on Abortion within the Party

In 2000, the Democratic Party made careful note of its willingness to allow members who differ with the platform to work at every level within the party. The platform says it “respects” and “welcomes” those who differ on the issue of abortion. The 2004 platform, anemic and attenuated in general, omits any such reference to respecting or welcoming within the Democrat fold those who oppose the platform position on abortion. The 2008 platform follows that of 2004, making no reference to the inclusivity of the Democratic Party with respect to abortion.

Partisanship on the Issue of Abortion

In 2004, the platform clause on abortion states explicit that the Democratic Party assumes the duty of resisting Republican efforts to “undermine” the legality of abortion. Accordingly, legalized abortion became not only a matter of individual liberty, but also a matter of entrenched partisanship (I blogged about this previously). In 2008, the explicit reference to the Republican Party was removed, but the resistance to any effort to “weaken” or “undermine” the so-called “right” to abortion remained. The Democratic Party, since 2004, is comfortable turning abortion from merely an issue of rights into a blustering partisan clarion that orients and motivates the party.

Dropping Abortion Rate

In 2000, the Democratic Party took note of the dropping abortion rate in the U.S. and seemingly approved of the trend as a positive outcome: “The abortion rate is dropping. Now we must continue to support efforts to reduce unintended pregnancies, and we call on all Americans to take personal responsibility to meet this important goal.” In 2004, no mention whatsoever of decreasing the number of abortions was made. In 2008, any reference to a dropping abortion rate is noticeably absent (in 2000, the credit presumably could go to President Clinton whereas in the 2008 the credit might be given to President Bush), though a reinsertion of the desire to decrease the number of abortions is reinserted.

Conclusion

In the final months of President Clinton’s presidency, the Democratic Party sought to establish itself as inclusive on the issue of abortion, as supportive of a diminishing abortion rate, and as concerned with helping a mother to educate herself on pregnancy and to receive the necessary economic and medical care that might prompt her to choose life. In 2004, the Democratic Party brought its abortion stance into high relief, hoping to distance and distinguish itself from President Bush’s pro-life measures. Abortion was defined in terms of right and in terms of party politics. Now, in 2008, the Democratic Party continues the trends of 2004 in refusing to open itself to a plurality of opinion on abortion, to stress the need to make abortions rare, and to highlight a dropping abortion rate in the U.S.

Despite the reinsertion and reassertion of the sketched initiatives to educate mothers and to establish social programs to assist economically and medicinally found in the 2000 platform, the 2008 platform hardens itself on abortion, actually describing the absence of such initiatives as constituting a contingent “need” for abortion. The Democratic Party in 2008 is asserting that there are certain socio-economic conditions that create a “need” for recourse to abortion. No such assertion is made in 2000 or 2004. Indeed, all these things considered, 2008 is not a step forward, but a step back for the Democratic Party on abortion.

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14 Comments
  1. August 22, 2008 10:01 am

    “But it also says the Party supports the choice to have a child!”

    Yes, but from the language of it you would think that the decision to have a child was some radically virtuous choice, akin to joining the Peace Corps or entering a convant, that is only possibly with a host of government programs.

  2. August 22, 2008 10:19 am

    Yesterday there was a interestin article about how the Obama folks want to reform the way the party does its caucuses and primaries.

    Sadly however I do not think the real reform that dealing with delgate selection that includes such issues as quotas for certain demographics and weighted Congressional Districts is going to be on the table

    I am a afradi that groups such PRO -Life Democrats are going to keep hitting that wall until that is changed. If they can get that tweeked some I think they could make gains

  3. August 22, 2008 10:20 am

    Western European legislation ought to be replicated. Raising abortion to the Constitutional level has been a curse. I just wrote about this here: http://www.geraldnaus.com/?p=10815

    Western Europe’s far lower abortion rates have to do with many factors – it’s not a free for all like in the USA, usually it’s limited to the first trimester save for grave reasons. In addition, absent the American prudishness, people are better prepared. And, gasp, there are great benefits – a year of paid maternity leave is standard. In the US, you basically are expected to give birth at the office.

    Is it just me or is there a connection between a people’s religiosity and the overwhelming presence of just the vices/crimes it abhors ? The most secular (former Lutheran, usually) peoples in Europe tend to have the lowest abortion and crime rates. *scratches head*.

  4. Morning's Minion permalink*
    August 22, 2008 10:20 am

    I agree that there is some backsliding. Steve Waldman has a good account of the backstory behind the new platform as the pro-life Democrats went up against a rigid and entrenched pro-Roe lobby, and won a few concessions. The picture he paints of Obama is of somebody trying to find compromise between the two groups, which I think is reflective of his temperament,

  5. Sean permalink
    August 22, 2008 10:27 am

    Morning Minion.

    Please come back to the land of reality. Barack Obama is not trying to “find a compramise” between the two groups.

    In 2007, Obama told the Planned Parenthood Action Fund that the “Freedom of Choice Act” would be the FIRST piece of legislation that he would sign as president…

    The act would not only codify Roe v. Wade, but wipe out all current federal, state and local restrictions on abortion that pass muster under Roe, including the Hyde Amendment prohibiting federal funding of abortion. This is not the legislative priority of a man keenly attuned to the moral implications of abortion.

  6. jonathanjones02 permalink
    August 22, 2008 10:28 am

    The U.S. has weak political parties, as leaders are unable to discipline members for votes. From the perspective of party pressure, what is instructive even more than a platform is how members who claim on the campaign trail to be against abortion actually vote. Senator Casey is the likely the most high-profile of these officials, but he has disappointed – especially on the Mexico City policy, which prohibits federal funds to overseas groups that perform abortions.

    This suggests there is strong institutional pressure.

  7. August 22, 2008 11:03 am

    Is the Democratic Party really so debased that getting its platform to include language supporting childbirth counts as winning a concession?

  8. August 22, 2008 11:43 am

    Thanks, Policraticus, for the informative and measured analysis.

    Morning’s Minion, I still have the Brooklyn Bridge for sale if you’re still interested.

  9. Jeremy permalink
    August 22, 2008 2:28 pm

    I’m coming to think that the real problem is that American’s attitude towards sexuality. Making contraception and sex-ed even more available probably won’t correct this problem. The real problem is that we have a ‘values-neutral’ view of sexuality. In fact, it would seem that most sex-ed programs are or are pressured to be ‘values-neutral’. By not informing our children (and showing by example) that sex is not entertainment, but instead serious business between a husband and wife, that unites them into one flesh and allows them to share in the act of creation, then we will continue to have a disordered view of sexuality that demands that abortion be available. I laugh at the term ‘reproductive right’ because it always used in the context of a singular person. It takes at least two.

  10. August 22, 2008 3:41 pm

    MM,

    If Obama’s trying to find a compromise is reflective of his temperament, then the result is reflective of his effectiveness.

  11. Ed the Roman permalink
    August 25, 2008 10:56 pm

    This is not a compromise. This is the Democrats of 1860 saying that they recognize that manumission is an option. And phrasing it to make it clear that it’s a moral coin toss between them.

  12. August 26, 2008 9:56 pm

    Jeremy, of course you have a point. Many Americans on both sides of the political spectrum have incorrect attitudes toward sex. But the question is whether the Democrats/Liberals have more of the libertines on their side, esp. in the way of big funding. I’d argue that they do. There is much more pressure exerted on Repubs by groups that represent views closer to the teachings of the Catholic church on human sexuality.

    I’d welcome some real competition from Democrats on this issue. I agree that many — not all — Republicans have become complacent because the Dems are heading down this ever-steepening anti-life hill with seemingly no brakes.

  13. Chris permalink
    May 20, 2009 9:38 pm

    It all boils down to this:
    Psalm 94: 20-23

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