Judy Belk

(WOMENSENEWS)–A small but vocal group of anti-choice supporters within the Democratic Party is working to change the assumption that views on abortion are divided along party lines and are calling for greater inclusion within their party.

Pro-life Democrats–the term these candidates use to describe their stance on abortion–and their supporting organizations say they should not be ignored as the Democrats battle to regain control of the House and Senate. Many of these candidates face uphill battles not only within their party, but also in districts that traditionally vote Republican. The few pro-life Democratic women must combat the additional stigma of being female in states where women have rarely, if ever, been elected to Congress.

Democrats hold 204 of the 435 House seats, and of that group only 28 are openly anti-choice, according to Democrats for Life of America, a Washington-based organization that promotes pro-life legislation and Democratic candidates. The organization, which has 32 state chapters, is the country’s most widely known pro-life Democratic group. This year, as in past elections, these pro-life Democratic candidates for state and federal offices are mostly men and largely represent the Midwest and the South.

But the candidates and their supporters insist they are no fringe group. In fact, a CBS News/New York Times poll in Jan. 2003, found that 21 percent of registered Democrats think abortion should never be permitted, compared to 28 percent of Republicans. Thirty-five percent of Democrats think it should be available with stricter limits than now, and 43 percent think it should be generally available. Anti-choice Democrats look to those numbers and see their potential influence over socially conservative swing voters.

“Democrats are so entrenched in the view that Democrats can’t be pro-life. We need to open the big tent to include pro-life,” said Kristen Day, executive director of Democrats for Life. “Democrats could hold seats where there are currently Republicans in pro-life districts. This is what we need to do if we want to take the majority back.”

The Minority Within a Minority

While already receiving the cold shoulder from members of their party, anti-choice Democratic women are often the minority within a minority in parts of the country where female representation in politics remains low.

Judy Belk is one such candidate. A real estate developer with no political experience, Belk is running a tough race in the First Congressional District of Alabama–a state that has never elected a woman to the House or Senate in a general election. Only five other states–Mississippi, Vermont, New Hampshire, Delaware and Iowa–can say the same.

Belk faces Jo Bonner, a pro-life Republican who she lost to in 2002, 61 percent to 38 percent. While Belk believes abortion could be allowed in cases of rape, incest or extreme danger to a mother’s health, she supports parental involvement laws for minors seeking abortions and she would vote to uphold the so-called partial-birth abortion ban signed by Bush last year.

Belk’s anti-choice stance has occasionally stirred up controversy, but her campaign has largely focused on other women’s issues, such as the treatment of women in the workplace and after-school care, Jeremy Cole, her campaign manager, told Women’s eNews.

Twenty-seven year old Silvia Delamar is another anti-choice female Democrat running a tough race for Congress. She says she decided to make her first attempt for a House seat in Georgia’s 8th District due to concern about the direction the country. She will face anti-choice Republican Lynn Westmoreland in November in this heavily Republican district.

“I have to win Republican votes to win this election, so being pro-life helps me since for some voters abortion is a determining factor,” she told Women’s eNews. “Being pro-life is an advantage; it’s almost necessary to win, though that’s not my motivation.”

Delamar’s motivation for being anti-choice is her son. She was a teen-age mother and worked three jobs to raise her son. “I made the decision not to become a statistic for abortion or welfare. I can’t imagine being without my son,” she said.

She believes that with being anti-choice comes the responsibility of delivering programs to support mothers and their children, especially for low-income families. Even though she said the Democratic Party isn’t receptive to the anti-choice stance, especially for female candidates, she’s just focused on winning her race.

When it comes to welfare, she advocates increased funding at the state level to create a program that is “a helping hand or a stepping stone,” according to the platform that appears on her campaign Web site. Too many welfare recipients “have become complacent,” she says, and they must be required to more “actively participate in self-help.”

“I’m not conformed by what is popular, I’m conformed by what is right,” she told Women’s eNews. “Some issues are bigger than a party.”

Excluded from Party Conventions

Delamar, Belk and anti-choice groups, however, are upset with the fact that pro-life Democratic candidates aren’t invited to speak at major party conventions. Day said the pivotal point came in 1992, when the Democratic National Convention prevented the anti-choice governor of Pennsylvania, Bob Casey, from speaking. She believes this signaled a shift in the party toward an exclusive, closed-minded pro-choice stance. She does not know of any other anti-choice Democrats who were allowed to speak on the topic of abortion at past conventions.

This year’s convention also upset Day’s organization, especially the language adopted in the party’s official platform. She said the past two platforms have included a conscience clause that respected the views of all, including those whose views differed on the death penalty and abortion. On the subject of reproductive choice, the party platform in 2000 stated: “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.”

This year that language was removed. The official platform now reads: “Because we believe in the privacy and equality of women, we stand proudly for a women’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.”

“We felt the language put pro-life Democrats with the Republican Party,” Day said. “Basically they’re saying if you’re not pro-choice, you’re not welcome.”

But the New York-based Planned Parenthood Action Fund, which Day criticized as being one of the groups controlling the Democrats, said the Democratic Party is incredibly inclusive, more so than the Republicans.

“They’re open to viewpoints from all walks of life and that’s why they value a woman’s right to choose,” said Steve Smith, the fund’s senior communications specialist. “The Republican Party chooses to marginalize a women’s right to choose in their platform.”

Some critics contend that “pro-choice” and “pro-life” labels have been manipulated by candidates from both parties who actually fall somewhere in between. One example of such confusion is a House race in Maine, a state where all but a few members of Congress and governors have been pro-choice for decades.

Anti-choice Democrat Michael Michaud–whose 2002 victory came as a surprise, but whose chances for reelection look good–faces pro-choice Republican Brian Hamel in the state’s 2nd district. While in office, Michaud voted for the partial-birth abortion ban, but against a bill to make it a crime to harm a fetus during another crime.

Hamel calls himself pro-choice, but he would vote in favor of actions such as parental notification and a partial-birth abortion ban, according to his campaign manager, Ben Golnik. Though they assume opposing sides on the abortion issue, Golnik described both Hamel and Michaud as “a seven or eight on a scale of ten, if zero is pro-choice and ten is pro-life.”

In addition to Michaud’s strong showing, Kristen Day said Willie Mount, a Democrat running for Louisiana’s 7th Congressional District, is running a “really impressive” race against two other Democrats and two Republicans, all men. Louisiana does not hold Congressional primary elections, so all candidates will compete in the general election on Nov. 2. Mount, a former state senator, would be the state’s first anti-choice Democratic woman elected to Congress, Day said.

Robin Hindery is a writer for Women’s eNews. Juhie Bhatia is a writer based in New York City.