There was huge fallout after pro-life feminists were disinvited from co-sponsorship of the Women’s March.
Then there was the head of the Democratic National Committee, Tom Perez, publicly shifting three different times on whether pro-lifers were welcome in the party. And then there were multiple Democrats losing special elections based on the party’s wildly extreme views on abortion.
And now Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chair Rep. Ben Ray Luján of New Mexico has explicitly said that there will be no litmus test on abortion in the party. Abortion rights activists “erupted” in response, once again putting pro-life Democrats in the political headlines.
Why do abortion’s strongest opponents cause these intensely negative public reactions? Ironically, such attempts to marginalize pro-life Democrats do nothing but give the very people they are trying to marginalize a much higher profile than they otherwise would have.
Here are three reasons why I believe they continue this strategy.
- The reproductive rights coalition in the Democratic Party is tenuous at best.
Nearly 20 million Democrats identify as pro-life. Millions more identify as pro-choice but nevertheless favor restrictions (like a 20-week limit) that abortion rights activists find anathema.
Furthermore, the Latino and African-American parts of the Democratic coalition are significantly more skeptical of abortion than are liberal whites. 538 recently did a must-read piece on this divide in the party with particular reference to African Americans. And it is no accident that Rep. Luján is a charter member of the Hispanic Caucus; his first-hand experience with the disproportionately anti-abortion views of Latinos is undoubtedly behind his wise decision to avoid abortion litmus tests.
If the party truly gives these people of color a privileged voice, then abortion rights activists will find their perspective marginalized. This prospect has made such activists lash out in anger.
Indeed, Rosie O’Donnell said that she would leave the party if Democratic leadership made room for those who don’t agree with the wildly extreme position that there should be absolutely no limits on abortion.
- One of the most effective critiques pro-choice activists have is that pro-lifers are “pro-birth” partisan fanatics.
The American people agree with most of what pro-lifers propose.
Limiting abortion beyond 20 weeks, reasonable waiting periods, children getting their parents’ permission (required for other medical procedures on minors), banning sex selection abortion, and not forcing pro-lifers to pay for abortions are all political winners.
Why then is the pro-life movement so marginalized in public debate? In some cases, the wounds are self-inflicted, but in the main it is because abortion rights activists have succeeded in painting the movement as “pro-birth” and fanatically obsessed with a single issue.
So even though most Americans agree with what pro-life activists are trying to do, Americans in general don’t want to be associated with a single-issue, fanatical movement.
That could change, however, if pro-lifers manage to change their image from being single-issue obsessives to broadly concerned about multiple issues. Pro-life Democrats were responsible for getting Obamacare passed. Pro-life Democrats are fighting for paid maternity leave. Pro-life Democrats want an end to nuclear weapons proliferation. And so much more.
If the pro-life Democrats are permitted to challenge the narrative that pro-lifers are single-issue extremists, the American people may take a second look at the movement and discover that they actually agree with much of what we are proposing. That change in narrative would be a monster defeat for abortion rights activists.
- Abortion rights activists cannot allow legal protection of the prenatal child to become a civil rights issue.
The extreme ideology of abortion rights activists can be plausible only if the prenatal child remains invisible in our discourse. If she is described at all, she must be described in dehumanizing language: products of conception, pre-embryo, mass of cells, parasite, etc.
Even the term “fetus” is used in abortion discourse as a means of dehumanization. In other contexts, we use the term “baby” or “child” — no one has heard of a “fetus bump” or says that a pregnant woman is “with fetus.”
There is a long history of making vulnerable populations invisible, especially when the dignity of such populations is inconvenient for those who hold power over them.
Civil rights movements have been about trying to uphold the dignity of such populations, in part by simply making them visible in the public discourse. By simply forcing our culture to acknowledge that they exist and deserve social equality.
Many pro-life activists, including the niece of Martin Luther King Jr., consistently speak about the fight to protect the prenatal child as the civil rights issue of our time. But this has limited appeal when coming mostly or only from conservative Republicans. In fact, given some of the racist political tactics (like voter suppression) coming from that side of the aisle, the idea that pro-lifers care about civil rights rings hollow in the minds of many.
But if pro-life Democrats become prominent parts of the pro-life movement, this critique no longer lands. And many more kinds of people will be in a better position to see that prenatal children have, as Pope Francis put it, “the face of the Lord” as the least among us. And with that will come the realization that the fight to recognize their social equality is, indeed, the civil rights issue of our time.
Charles C. Camosy is Associate Professor of Theological and Social Ethics at Fordham University and author of Beyond the Abortion Wars.