Progressive, Pro-Life and Full of Yourself

Frances Kissling

The Democratic Party Platform comes very close to embracing the reproductive health agenda that has been consistently advocated by the pro-choice, progressive women's movement. So why are "pro-life" progressives claiming victory?

On Tuesday, August 12, a loose coalition of anti-abortion
progressive evangelicals and Catholics held a press event to toot their own
horn. The new Democratic Party Platform, they claimed, took a big step in their
direction. The Platform’s explicit support for a woman’s decision "to have a
child," they argued, represents a common ground position. But the fact that
pro-choice advocates have always supported both the right to choose an abortion
and the right to choose a child
immediately undercuts any illusion that anti-abortion progressives either understand
what choice means or have any sincere desire to stand on common ground with
pro-choice progressives. Rather than
standing on "common ground," these self proclaimed pro-lifers are hanging on
the edge of cliff by their finger tips.

Not only is the new platform stronger
in its support for the right to choose abortion, it embraces the concept of
reproductive justice including not only family planning but comprehensive
sexuality education. If, in fact, these folks had anything to do with this new
plank, they did those of us who are pro-choice a big favor.

The 2004 Platform on choice was 59 words; this year’s
Platform devotes 127 words to the issue and sounds like a lot more than lip
service to women’s reproductive health. Support for Roe in the old Platform was
justified on the basis of privacy and women’s equality. The new Platform makes
no mention of privacy; instead, it derives
its moral authority from a "woman’s right to choose safe and legal abortion"
and talks about empowering people to make informed choices. A notable omission is
the Clintonian phrase "safe, legal and rare," replaced by a more honest and
modest goal of reducing unintended pregnancy through better health care, family
planning and comprehensive sex education. Sex education was not even mentioned
in the old Platform.

The progressive pro-life desire to see the Platform commit
to reducing abortions was subtly undercut; this year, the Platform merely
"recognizes" that sex ed, family planning and good health care will have the
effect of reducing the need for abortion. In all other areas, the Platform uses
strong language of commitment: the Party "strongly and unequivocally supports
Roe" and "strongly supports access to affordable family planning services." Even
the Platform’s support for pre and post natal care and income support for women
who have children is properly framed as a right on its own and not as a means
to reducing the need for abortion.

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All in all, the Platform comes very close to embracing the
full reproductive health agenda that has been consistently advocated by the pro-choice,
progressive women’s movement.

So why, you might ask, are "pro-life" progressives (PP’ers) claiming
victory in this Platform? Jim Wallis of Sojourners, the group that called the
press conference, acted as spin meister extraordinaire, calling the Platform an
"historic step forward" and thereby situating himself as a political power
broker. As evangelicals in the pews leave the hard right and flock toward megachurches
which focus less on controlling personal behavior and more on "feel good" faith,
including feeling good about helping the poor and saving the environment, a new
set of leaders is taking a closer look at the Democratic Party and positioning
themselves near left-leaning evangelicals like Wallis. It is here where common political
ground is being made. Up-and-coming religious leaders are as interested in
political power as are those of the hard right – and they know as well as
anyone else does that power is moving back to the hands of the Democrats.

This is the likeliest explanation for spinning a thoroughly
progressive pro-choice plank as an anti-abortion victory. As the Sojourners’ press conference
progressed, it became clear that other than vague support for women who choose to
continue pregnancies and "caring adoption laws," there was next to nothing in
the plank these folks supported. Doug Kmiec, an antiabortion Republican
Catholic who has endorsed Obama, noted that "The Platform still falls short of
the Catholic ideal." Falls short! It is a slap in the face to Kmiec’s Catholic
ideal, which includes not only no abortion but no birth control even for
married couples, and abstinence-only sexuality curricula. The Platform also makes
an oblique reference to condoms as a means of preventing the transmission of
HIV and AIDS, which the Catholic Church still rejects.

Others on the call and in the small coalition of PPers and pro-life
Democrats have even declined to support family planning, in spite of Wallis’
claim that the new Platform moves us from "symbolism to substance" and offers
concrete ways to reduce the number of abortions. Given his and his colleagues’ failure to support the measures that would
really reduce the need for abortion, this was pure rhetoric. Wallis’ Sojourners
"takes no position on contraception" and Democrats for Life refused to endorse
the contraceptive provisions in the Ryan-DeLauro bill entitled ‘Reducing the Need for
Abortion." Frankly, it is hard to accept that these groups have a genuine
interest in common ground on reducing the need for abortion when they refuse to
support the single most important measure that would make that happen – "access to affordable family planning" – and
these groups aren’t even Catholic. It is either naïve or cynical to pretend
that we will reduce the number of abortions by changing adoption laws or by the
totally inadequate funds we think we might get allocated to help women raise
kids. When you scratch the surface, the PPers are often sadly mostly just anti-abortion.

During the conference call, the group indicated it would push
for further language changes. Some questioned whether there was ever a "need"
for abortion. These progressives seem to resemble population controllers of old
— it is only the numbers that matter, not people’s lives. A progressive
Christian who has no sympathy for a woman who is carrying a deformed or
disabled child, who is herself stricken with cancer, or who already has more
children that she can care for, is suspect. And if that Christian is dumb
enough to believe that the Platform should not talk about reducing "the need"
for abortion — because there are always church groups
and anti-abortion groups ready to provide baby clothes or find good Christian
homes for babies who would have been aborted — he or she doesn’t
belong in Democratic politics.

The biggest disappointment the PPers acknowledged about the
Platform was that it did not moralize about abortion. But Wallis took solace in
the belief that the plank makes room for people with "moral convictions about
abortion" — as if those of us who support the right to choose have no moral
conviction that undergirds our respect for choice. In our Salon article Are Democrats Backpedaling on Abortion, Kate Michelman and I
warned against "going down the path of moral pandering on abortion," and
we are pleased the Party was of the same mind.

I take solace in the fact that the Democratic Party did
indeed move forward. I am certain that the quiet, experienced voices of
pro-choice leaders carried far more weight than Democrats and fellow travelers
who oppose a woman’s right to decide whether abortion or childbearing and
rearing is the best moral decision they can make.

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