Just recently, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo made headlines when he proposed loosening his state’s restrictions on late-term abortions in cases where the mother’s health is in danger. This was odd given how the bipartisan trend has been to further regulate late-term abortions.
For many, this was part of Gov. Cuomo’s move to appeal to more Democratic primary voters for a 2016 presidential run. The question must arise: If this is what a Democrat in 2013 must do to appeal to the base, what does this say about the state of the Democratic Party on abortion?
Indeed, in the last few years, there has been a troubling Democratic leftward shift on abortion.
As early as 2004, Democrats realized that a far-left position on abortion alienated voters. In 2000, the platform acknowledged the diversity of Democratic opinion on abortion. After his disappointing 2004 presidential loss, Sen. John Kerry, a Roman Catholic, acknowledged that his perceived liberal position on abortion undermined his standing with voters.
With Barack Obama, Democrats supposedly had a man with a thoughtful position on abortion. In his semi-memoir, "The Audacity of Hope," Obama wrote about correspondence he had with a physician who wrote him about his inability to vote for Obama because of abortion. Obama even ordered his staff to remove from his website rhetoric on abortion that was offensive to pro-life voters. There was a perception that this progressive Democrat, well versed in faith and values, could accommodate anti-abortion voters. Indeed, during the healthcare debate, President Obama accommodated anti-abortion Democrats in restricting taxpayer funding for abortions.
But this narrative changed with the 2012 election. Thanks to Republican extremism on abortion and privacy, abortion became a wedge issue for Democrats. Many Republicans bragged about their support of criminalization of abortion even in cases of rape. Some Republicans, like Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich, spoke about possible legal restrictions on couples who seek in vitro fertilization and supported allowing states to forbid the use of birth control.
Democrats stepped into this vacuum of political malpractice by embracing unrestricted abortion rights as a position as uniquely Democratic as Social Security or universal health care. At the party convention, the president of Planned Parenthood was an honored guest and the president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, a lobby that famously opposed passage of the Born Alive Infants Protection Act, was given an honored speaking slot. The 2002 federal statute gave legal protection to infants born alive after an induced abortion.
Today, Democrats have deviated from the Big Tent mentality on abortion, and have returned to the blindly intolerant, and yet allegedly enlightened, mentality of the Dukakis Democrats. Culturally, for better and for worse, this is no longer the party of John F. Kennedy, which was welcomed in ethnic faith communities. Instead, culturally, the party is more Upper East Side in Manhattan than the coal country of Pennsylvania and West Virginia. The American value of personal autonomy has for many Democrats become an expansively defined secular sacrament that includes the right to terminate a pregnancy at any stage.
In taking such a position, Democrats miss the chance to affirm a holistic culture of life. Democratic positions on universal health care, retirement security for seniors and dignity for the developmentally disabled reflect a moral vision on respect for life. Traditional New Deal liberalism is part of a moral tradition that affirms life in all stages and, I submit, is at odds with the values behind the NARAL party line.
The party that lauds freedom of conscience and tolerance today finds it difficult to tolerate the conscience in action of Democrats who question the morality of “abortion on demand, regardless of ability to pay.”
Though many of these voters, whose vision of a moral society includes the New Deal legacy, will not run to today’s Republican Party of economic hedonism, they are not content. The present Democratic abortion position may bring with it the allegiance of the Dijon Mustard Democrats, but not much more.
Luis Viera is an attorney who practices in the Tampa Bay area.