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Democrats who oppose abortion rights are finding it harder to remain in the party

With access to abortion under threat in red states and possibly a more conservative Supreme Court, candidates have been going out of their way to reaffirm their abortion rights stances.

Anti-abortion demonstrators in front of the Supreme Court
Anti-abortion demonstrators in front of the Supreme Court during the March for Life rally in Washington, Jan. 27, 2017. Anti-abortion advocates, from grass-roots activists all the way to the White House, are taking aim at New York and other states in a bid to halt similar legislative efforts to expand abortion rights by emboldened Democratic lawmakers and to mobilize supporters ahead of the 2020 presidential race. (Al Drago/Copyright 2019 The New York Times)
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President Bill Clinton famously wanted to make abortion "safe, legal and rare." Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton used that same phrase and added, "and by rare, I mean rare." And President Barack Obama invited voters across the aisle to work to reduce the number of abortions.

But those kinds of rhetorical olive branches to voters who oppose abortion rights have been mostly absent from the 2020 Democratic campaign.

With access to abortion under threat in red states and, potentially, from a more conservative Supreme Court, candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination have been going out of their way to reaffirm their abortion rights stances. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., tweeted "Abortion is healthcare" last week as President Donald Trump was speaking to abortion opponents at the March for Life. In December, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., said she would wear a Planned Parenthood scarf to her inauguration.

On Sunday, during a Fox News town hall, Democrats for Life President Kristen Day asked former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg whether he wanted the support of voters who oppose abortion rights. He didn't respond directly, instead reiterating his support for Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion nationwide.

"There's a crisis within our own party," Day said later in an interview, describing antiabortion Democrats as experiencing "homelessness" in the political arena.


Day said she made several efforts to meet with Buttigieg's campaign to discuss abortion, with no success. She said it was disappointing because Indiana has been a home to several Democrats who oppose abortion rights, including former U.S. Sen. Joe Donnelly, who served from 2013 to 2019, and former Rep. Brad Ellsworth, who served from 2007 to 2011. She also pointed to how Democratic leaders are supporting Marie Newman, who is mounting a primary challenge against Illinois Rep. Daniel Lipinski, one of the last anti-abortion rights Democrats in the House, as further proof that abortion has become a party-wide litmus test.

Trump's campaign-style appearance at the March for Life, when he became the first U.S. president to address the gathering in person, appeared to create an even tighter alignment between the GOP and the movement that opposes abortion rights.

Abortion opponents also strongly opposed Obama and both Bill and Hillary Clinton. Those who work and consult in Democratic campaigns say the increasing polarization on the issue means it is more and more difficult for people who oppose abortion rights to feel at home in the Democratic Party.

Until last summer, Charlie Camosy served on the board of Democrats for Life. But the Catholic professor of theological ethics said he stepped down when it became clear all the major Democratic presidential candidates had become too extreme for him on the issue of abortion.

"They were trying to make sure people like me were not welcome in the party," said Camosy, who teaches at Fordham University in New York City.

Camosy, a registered independent who says he has voted for Democrats down-ballot but not for president in recent years, joined the American Solidarity Party last summer. The tipping point, he said, was when even Buttigieg, seen as more moderate by many voters, was "parroting" the language of the Democratic Party's 2016 platform, which includes no restrictions to abortion access and opposes a long-standing measure - known as the Hyde Amendment - that prohibits the use of taxpayer money to pay for abortions.

In a recent survey of all the Democratic candidates, The Washington Post asked whether there should be restrictions on abortion at any point during a healthy pregnancy. Six of the candidates, including Buttigieg, Warren and Sanders, said they support no restrictions. Biden and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar responded that abortion should be unrestricted until the point of fetal viability, usually considered between 24 and 28 weeks of pregnancy.

The campaigns of several Democratic candidates, including Biden, Buttigieg, Klobuchar, Sanders, Warren and entrepreneur Andrew Yang, did not respond to a request for comment for this article, including on whether they think their party should do anything to address the concerns of voters who oppose abortion rights. The one candidate who responded was Tom Steyer, the hedge fund manager and philanthropist, who said women's abortion rights have come under unprecedented attack in states like Georgia and Alabama.


"I believe that 'safe, legal, and rare' is just old language that doesn't reflect the current belief that abortion is health care and everyone should be afforded a right to health care," Steyer wrote in an email.

Mike McCurry, who was a press secretary to President Clinton, said the 2020 contenders may have concluded that reaching out to Democrats who want abortion to be illegal may not be worth upsetting their more liberal base.

"People are not excited to invoke 1990s Clintonianisms," he said. "Even though I think it was an effective way to deal with that issue, as my daughter points out, that was so last century. There's a party orthodoxy on choice, and nobody strays from it."

Leaders of groups that oppose abortion rights, such as the SBA List, have been backing Republican candidates for years, often helping to defeat Democratic candidates in the process. And the alignment of Trump with the antiabortion movement has made it easier for groups like Planned Parenthood and NARAL to drive the direction of the Democratic Party, said Jacob Lupfer, a consultant who has worked with political action committees trying to fund Democrats who oppose abortion rights. He says there's little financial backing for those candidates.

"The pro-life movement claims to not be a partisan movement," Lupfer said. "When almost every major pro-life leader is a . . . Trump partisan, it makes it hard to square with the idea that they want pro-life Democrats."

Abortion has historically presented a challenge for Catholic candidates who support abortion access because of the church's teaching that abortion is always wrong. Biden, who is Catholic, was denied Communion by a priest over the issue in October. His own views shifted last year: After supporting the Hyde Amendment for decades, he said he now supports eliminating it.

The two major parties weren't always so partisan on abortion. March for Life founder Nellie Gray worked in the administration of Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson. Although the parties' platforms began to diverge in the early 1980s, many Democratic candidates still used language that could assuage voters who had qualms about abortion rights. One common argument was that Democratic policies on issues such as health care end up helping reduce the abortion rate.

"Both parties were trying to not make it an issue. It was politically toxic," said Mary Ziegler, a professor at Florida State University College of Law whose book on abortion will come out in March. Now, she said, Democratic candidates have avoided making abortion rights a priority on the campaign trail, while conservative Republicans often focus on it to rally support.


She thinks that could change this summer, though.

The Supreme Court is expected to issue a ruling in June on a challenge to a Louisiana law that requires doctors performing abortions to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals, a decision that is likely to elicit responses from the Democratic candidates. That law, which opponents say would severely limit access to abortion, was sponsored by Louisiana state Sen. Katrina Jackson, a Democrat who opposes abortion rights.

This article was written by Sarah Pulliam Bailey, a reporter for The Washington Post.

Related Topics: ELECTION 2020
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