Dems debate "big tent" on choice


Geraldine Sealey
December 21, 2004 12:39AM (UTC)

A new debate within the Democratic party: Whether and how to acknowledge a wide spectrum of views on abortion while remaining in strong support of a woman's right to choose. The Boston Globe reports:

"No prominent Democrat has suggested that the party change its long-held stance that a woman should have the right to an abortion if she chooses. But as Democrats assess what went wrong for them in November, some are urging a 'big tent' approach that is more welcoming to those who oppose abortion. Democrats say that attitude might be especially useful with Hispanics, a critical constituency that tends to be Roman Catholic and whose majority support for Democrats has slipped in recent elections."

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"Abortion rights activists are alarmed at the potential shift in the party's approach to the issue as they look warily ahead to Supreme Court nomination fights and efforts in Congress to restrict abortion. But Democratic leaders say they can reach out to voters in the 'red states,' which voted Republican in November, without compromising their party platform on abortion. 'All Democrats are united around the idea that we should make abortion safe, legal, and rare,' but 'we also have to be open to people who are pro-life,' said Simon Rosenberg, the president of the New Democratic Network who is mulling a run for the DNC chairmanship."

Amy Sullivan, blogging for the Washington Monthly, defends the bigger tent philosophy, saying Democrats should have realized long ago that alienating voters queasy about abortion would hurt them at the polls. "If Democrats can change the perception that they are pro-abortion, they will finally be free to go on the offensive. A majority of Americans believes that abortion shouldn't be illegal, but also shouldn't be completely unrestricted. These are people who just want to see fewer abortions taking place. Guess what? So do most Democrats -- that's just not how they talk about it. A Democratic candidate should never find him- or herself arguing about who believes in a phrase like 'the culture of life'; they should debate who actually does more to reduce abortion rates. Over the past few decades, abortion rates have gone up during Republican administrations and down during Democratic ones. Teen pregnancies (and abortions) have plummeted by one-third over the past decade due to a mixture of liberal and conservative policies related to contraception availability and informed abstinence promotion. Democrats have nothing to be ashamed of when it comes to their record of protecting life. But no one is going to listen to them if they're too busy chanting 'I'm not sorry.'"

The strongest pro-choice factions within the Democratic party are understandably concerned about all of this talk. Even Howard Dean said recently that the party should be more welcoming to abortion rights opponents. But with judicial nominations looming, does this mean Democrats will avoid going to the mat to oppose anti-choice judges, all in the interest of appearing inclusive? Harry Reid has already said he wouldn't mind if Antonin Scalia rose to being Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. If Democrats, understandably searching for ways to broaden their appeal, appear to roll over when it comes to anti-choice judicial nominees, they could be asking for a internal civil war on the abortion front.


Geraldine Sealey

Geraldine Sealey is senior news editor at Salon.com.

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