By Cynthia L. Cooper
Friday, January 14, 2005
As the competition heats up for next month's vote on the chair of the Democratic National Party, a worried buzz is growing that the party's pro-choice position is getting shakier.
(WOMENSENEWS)--Women and pro-choice leaders both inside and outside the Democratic Party insist that the party's strong pro-choice position will not be abandoned or shaken, despite rumors to the contrary flying through blogs, Web sites, TV commentary and newspaper articles.
Headlines ranged from "Anxiety Over Abortion" on MSNBC.com to "Democrats Weigh De-emphasizing Abortion as an Issue" in The New York Times. "Are Dems Ready to Elect Pro-Life Party Chairman?" asked the conservative Cybercast News Service. And, "Right-wingers salivating," said bloggers on the progressive Daily Kos, where one regular wrote "Anti-abortion is a deal breaker for me."
With this kind of chatter, pro-choice activists are concerned.
Much of the clamor arises from the contest now heating up for the position of chair of the Democratic National Committee, to be decided Feb. 12, at a meeting of committee electors in Washington, D.C., following regional caucuses this month. Candidates can join in the run to replace current Democratic National Committee chair Terry McAulliffe until Feb. 10.
Among the most active of those seeking the job are former U.S. Representative Timothy Roemer of Indiana, who has a record of anti-choice votes, and former Gov. Howard Dean of Vermont, who is pro-choice but has called for a more "inclusive" party stance.
Another powerful position, leader of Democrats in the U.S. Senate, was filled in November by Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, who is anti-choice, but supports family planning.
Some Democrats have spoken out in support of choice. Democratic Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, spoke about a future "blueprint" for the party at the National Press Club on Jan. 12, and said a new progressive vision must speak more directly to abortion and issues of deep conscience.
"Neither Congress nor the White House should be making those reproductive decisions" for a woman, he said.
"The truth is, we're in flux," said Emily Giske, a New Yorker who is one of the party's electors. "The Democratic Party has always been a pro-choice party, and I believe in my heart, that's not going to change. The nuance here is that there are going to be individuals who are prominent people in the Democratic Party, like Harry Reid, who are not pro-choice. That doesn't mean the party will go that way."
But if top-level pro-choice advocates are worried, she said: "I would be, too."
Pro-choice leaders are taking notice. "It's going to be a fight if they think they can push us around," said Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority, a national advocacy group with headquarters in Arlington, Va. "It's not going to happen. As women's rights leaders, our plates are full. But we're not going to let this go by."
The Feminist Majority was one of the groups that spearheaded the massive March for Women's Lives in Washington last April, which drew over a million participants, according to organizers.
The Democratic loss for the presidency was not because of pro-choice issues, said Smeal.
"Women will not be blamed for the election," said Smeal. "It was the Iraq war and the conduct of this election. They are not putting us in a bag. Senator Kerry did not use women's issues strongly and did not articulate them well. It's time for more leadership who can galvanize the people who care about choice and women's issues, who can speak to the issues with gravitas and heart. There is no way we're backing off--none, zero."
The current platform of the Democratic Party fully supports women's right to make private decisions about abortion without government interference as set forth by the U.S. Supreme Court decision Roe v Wade in 1973. The GOP's national platform supports a complete ban on abortion. The platforms are set until the next presidential election in 2008 and are largely symbolic, since legislators vote based on their own assessment of issues.
Suspicions that the party's pro-choice position might be getting wobbly were stoked by the Democrat's defeated presidential candidate, Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, who is pro-choice.
At an early-December election review held by America Votes, a coalition of progressive organizations, Kerry unexpectedly made comments on abortion, said Gloria Feldt, president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, who was sitting next to him.
"As I remember it, he said, 'I think we're going to have to give the members of congress a pass on these abortion votes,'" said Feldt, who said she incredulously swung around in her seat, interpreting the statement as blaming the election loss on pro-choice issues and a suggestion to sideline women's rights.
Prior to Kerry's appearance at the meeting, pollsters and political analysts had said that the presidential vote did not turn on social issues, such as abortion or gay rights, as was initially reported on CNN, but pivoted instead on terrorism, war and the economy.
In addition, the majority of women (51 percent) voted for Kerry, according to polling by Lake, Snell, Perry and Associates. Kerry later contacted Feldt to say that he didn't mean that the Democrats should back off on reproductive rights.
But since then, Feldt said she is taking no chances. "I think it would be a very harmful statement for the Democratic Party to appear to be backing away from core values," she said. She released an open letter to Rep. Roemer, urging the Democratic Party to "champion pro-choice values."
The letter came in response to televised comments by Roemer on his plans for the Democratic party, in which he said abortion procedures used after the 13th week are a "moral blind spot."
"The real moral blind spot is the one that keeps lawmakers from seeing how restricting access to needed reproductive health care puts women's lives in danger," Feldt wrote.
Dean contributed to the heightened sense of alert on the issue when he said in a post-election television interview that he wants to "embrace pro-life Democrats."
Dean is not changing his pro-choice position, a spokesperson for him, Laura Gross, told Women's eNews. But, she said, "if there are pro-life people who want to be part of the Democratic Party, we need to keep our door open."
However open the party's door may be propped, pro-choice advocates say the pro-choice plank must be left nailed down.
"I don't think we need to reassess the position. We need to become more effective advocates for choice," said Karen M. White, national political director for EMILY's List, a political action committee that helped elect 146 pro-choice Democratic female candidates to national, state and local offices in the 2004 election.
Even people who are not connected to the Democratic Party are weighing in.
Frank Pavone, national director of the anti-choice lobby group Priests for Life, released a statement on Jan. 10, urging Democrats to "end captivity to the abortion lobby," and to stand with "unborn children."
Morgen D'Arc, co-founder of the National Women's Caucus of the Green Party of the United States, urged pro-choice Democrats to switch. She said Greens stand committed to "the values of the majority of Americans who believe in a woman's right to control her own body."
Pro-choice Republicans have expressed alarm. Jennifer Stockman, co-chair of the Republican Majority for Choice, a Washington, D.C., advocacy group, warned Democrats to beware of the Religious Right, which she said has taken over the Republican Party. "The Democrats are not removed from their agenda. Their agenda is bigger than Republicans; it's the U.S.," she said.
Stockman thinks both parties would be wise to drop abortion from their agenda and leave the matter to citizens to handle privately.
Two prominent political insiders, meanwhile, say that despite all the current jostling around the issue, Democrats are not likely to move in any significant direction.
"My guess is that we will see no change," said Ann F. Lewis, who served as national chair of the Women's Vote Center for the Democratic National Committee during the 2004 election and recently joined HillPAC, a political action committee set up by New York's Senator Hillary Clinton, a Democrat.
"We had a platform. We reaffirm our support for Roe v. Wade and state that abortion will be 'safe, legal and rare.' That will be the consensus. That's where most Democrats are and that's where the country is. And it's the morally right position."
Roxanne Conlin, an Iowa lawyer active with the national party, agrees that a shift is unlikely. But she said that abortion is sure to be in contention in Congress and judicial nominations.
"Reproductive freedom is more in danger than it's ever been. None of us who care about this issue is a bit relaxed."
Cynthia L. Cooper is an independent journalist in New York, who writes frequently about reproductive rights.
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