Without much doubt, the Democratic party is much more of a pro-choice party than the Republican party is a pro-life party. Melinda Henneberger has a provocative op-ed in today's New York Times that makes the case that Democrats need to recognize most voter's complicated beliefs about abortion. Here are highlights:
Over 18 months, I traveled to 20 states listening to women of all ages, races, tax brackets and points of view speak at length on the issues they care about heading into ’08. They convinced me that the conventional wisdom was wrong about the last presidential contest, that Democrats did not lose support among women because “security moms” saw President Bush as the better protector against terrorism. What first-time defectors mentioned most often was abortion.
Why would that be, given that Roe v. Wade was decided almost 35 years ago? Opponents of abortion rights saw 2004 as the chance of a lifetime to overturn Roe, with a movement favorite already in the Oval Office and several spots on the Supreme Court likely to open up. A handful of Catholic bishops spoke out more plainly than in any previous election season and moved the Catholic swing vote that Al Gore had won in 2000 to Mr. Bush.
The standard response from Democratic leaders has been that anyone lost to them over this issue is not coming back — and that regrettable as that might be, there is nothing to be done. But that is not what I heard from these voters.
Many of them, Catholic women in particular, are liberal, deep-in-their-heart Democrats who support social spending, who opposed the war from the start and who cross their arms over their chests reflexively when they say the word “Republican.” Some could fairly be described as desperate to find a way home. And if the party they’d prefer doesn’t send a car for them, with a really polite driver, it will have only itself to blame.
What would it take to win them back? Respect, for starters — and not only on the night of the candidate forum on faith. As it turns out, you cannot call people extremists and expect them to vote for you. But real respect would require an understanding that what supporters of abortion rights genuinely see as a hard-earned freedom, opponents genuinely see as a self-inflicted wound and — though I can feel some of you tensing as you read this — a human rights issue comparable to slavery.
. . . .
Actually, it is a stark reminder of how fully capable they all are of losing it. A Democratic senator I spoke with recently did not see the disconnect between public opinion and the party’s position on Carhart as any reason to worry: “Make no mistake; this is a pro-choice country, period.”
But in a recent New York Times/CBS News poll, 41 percent of respondents favored stricter limits on abortion, with an additional 23 percent saying it should not be permitted at all.
What are we to make of all this? Surely at a minimum that our enduring reluctance to acknowledge the complexity of the abortion issue has only prolonged and hardened the debate. Most Americans fall somewhere between the extremes of “never” and “no problem” when it comes to abortion.
What polling can’t capture and politicians won’t hear is the voice of the nun I interviewed who considers herself pro-choice — and has been disciplined by her diocese as a result — because she does not think abortion is wrong for rape victims. Or the voices of the many women I spoke to who hold far more expansive views yet call themselves pro-life. Most people differentiate between a fetus in the early weeks of development and at nearly full term, and draw the line at a procedure that Democratic Senator Pat Moynihan regarded as infanticide.
Read it all (subscription required).
I don't think that the answer is to become a pro-life party, but the Democratic Party needs to be careful that it recognize that abortion is not merely an issue of civil liberties, but also a deeply important moral choice for which Americans have very complicated views indeed. At a minimum, we should begin to offer real answers by what we really mean when we claim in our speeches that we want abortions to be rare. Thi needs to be far more than lip service.