“(W)hen it comes to issues like abortion, amnesty, and acid, I’m about as liberal as your grandmother. I don’t like the Supreme Court decision on abortion. I think it went too far.”
So said then-Senator Joe Biden in 1974, a Democrat whose shifting position on abortion is a microcosm of what happened to the pro-life views of the Democratic party as a whole. When Roe v. Wade was first decided, Biden was among the legislators in attendance at the first Marches for Life in Washington, D.C., not a few of whom were Democrats.
Even today, Vice President Biden, a Catholic, admits to personally holding the views of the Church that life begins at conception, while being unable to reconcile them with his party’s political position.
Before reaching the polarizing stances that exist today, life issues never used to set politicians firmly in one party or the other. Even through the 1980s, being pro-life or pro-choice did not necessarily give away one’s political affiliations.
Today, the early pro-lifers in the United States would be hard pressed to fit neatly in either the Democratic or Republican parties.
The early days of the pro-life movement
Despite prevailing beliefs on both sides of the abortion issue today, the Roe v. Wade decision was not the moment that the pro-life movement began in the United States.
In his new book “Defenders of the Unborn,” Daniel K. Williams traces the roots of the pro-life movement as far back as the 1930s and 40s, when the first calls for the loosening of abortion laws were issued.
In response to changing attitudes, the National Federation of Catholic Physicians Guild passed several resolutions solidifying their stance against abortion. In 1937, the organization issued a statement condemning abortion, saying the practice would “make the medical practitioner the grave-digger of the nation.”
“Catholics who opposed the physician-led campaign for abortion law reform in the 1930s believed that they were defending the absolute values of natural law against moral relativism and utilitarian arguments that sought to justify ‘killing’ for the sake of a higher social good,” Williams wrote.
Doctors on the other side conceded that abortion was morally problematic, but they saw it as a lesser of two evils. The Great Depression had driven up abortion rates among poor and desperate mothers who felt they couldn’t afford another mouth to feed. Many of these doctors were also secular Jews who had led the charge behind contraception in the ‘20s, and believed the Catholic Church’s involvement in legislation threatened people’s freedom. Some were also eugenicists who believed certain populations should not reproduce.
In the late 1930s through the late 1950s, five state Supreme Courts and the U.S. District Court in D.C. recognized fetal personhood in various rulings. That these rulings matched the beliefs of a growing and vocal Catholic population, who believe that life begins at conception, is likely not a coincidence.
As Alan Guttmacher, a prominent abortion advocate at the time who would go on to head Planned Parenthood in New York, wrote in 1963: “The Catholic Church is so well mobilized and makes up such a large percentage of the population that changing the law of any state in the Northeast of the U.S.A. is a virtual impossibility at least for the next several decades.”
Often, Williams said, pro-life organizations such as the Right to Life Leagues that were sprouting up in the mid-1960s would begin under diocesan leadership, eventually shifting to independent status in order to better reach more people.
And because many of these first pro-lifers were Catholic, many of them were also Democrat.
Why Catholics used to be Democrats
For the first several decades of United States history, Catholics comprised a small minority of the population. But with large immigrant waves from predominantly Catholic countries like Ireland, Germany, Italy and Poland, they began arriving to major U.S. cities in droves by the second half of the nineteenth century.
“The Democrats had it worked out where when you landed at Ellis Island, you were introduced at the same time to your new pastor and your democratic ward boss,” said Michael Sean Winters, Catholic journalist and author of the 2008 book “Left at the Altar: How the Democrats Lost the Catholics and How the Catholics Can Save the Democrats.”
When Catholic immigrants first arrived to the States, they were poor and living closely together in urban areas. A major source of their identity in the New World was their local parish.
“When you’d go to a city like Chicago or Philadelphia and said ‘Where you from?’ people would say ‘I’m from St. Catherine’s,’” Winters said. “This was your identity. That doesn’t exist anymore.”
The parish was where much of the rest of community life was centered as well. Labor unions, which were exploding in popularity at the time, often sprang out of meetings held in parish basements.
And though the Catholics theologically opposed abortion, they were not as socially conservative on other issues. They opposed abortion, but they advocated government support for poor mothers and disabled children. They wanted to see a streamlined adoption process, and federally funded child care, Williams said.
By today’s standards, they could not be considered fully Democrat or Republican.
But once Catholic immigrants started making more money, they shifted to the suburbs, and their values and politics started to shift as well, Winters argues.
“Catholics only started fleeing from the Democrats when they moved to the suburbs and started getting wealthy and affluent themselves, and I would say they started fleeing from the Gospel as well,” Winters said.
This massive move from urban areas to the suburbs was taking place in the 1950s, at the same time that divorce rates were spiking around the nation. Concerns were also rising about the effect of materialism and consumerism on culture, causing author John Steinbeck to write to his friend Adlai Stevenson in 1959: “(I)f I wanted to destroy a nation, I would give it too much and I would have it on its knees, miserable greedy, and sick.”
In the immediate aftermath of the Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion in the United States, opposition was coming from Catholic politicians. The early pictures of the first Marches for Life show an event made up mostly of legislators, many of them Catholic Democrats.
“A lot of Catholic politicians were once pro-life, especially those who were in office in the early 1970s,” Williams said.
Ted Kennedy, of the famous American Catholic Kennedys, endorsed the pro-life cause until 1975 when he shifted course and remained pro-choice until the end of his political career. Several southern Democrats who were once pro-life — Dick Gephardt until 1985, Al Gore until the mid-1980s — ended up changing course once they set their sights on national political ambitions.
One of the biggest obstacles for these pro-life Catholic Democrats moving forward was the party’s increasing affiliation with the feminist movement of the time, and the pro-life movement’s insistence on passing a Human Life Amendment, which would have overturned Roe and granted a constitutional right to life from the moment of conception.
Aligning themselves with the feminist movement - which claimed the right to abortion as a non-negotiable — and other special interest groups would eventually alienate the Democratic Party from its roots as the big tent party, Winters wrote in “Left at the Altar,” and the party would soon lose its majority hold in favor of emphasizing individual rights and autonomy.
“‘Choice’ was the mantra,” Winters wrote. “...the Democrats restricted their appeals to discrete groups, each with a claim to the public’s attention but sharing no sense of national purpose, no common understanding of national possibilities. They lost the ability to craft a narrative with which to engage and direct the country. And, since America was and is a churchgoing country, Democrats lost the ability to connect with the electorate.”
The religious gap was soon filled by Ronald Reagan, whose 1980 campaign won widespread support from pro-lifers after Reagan reached out to leaders of the movement, and had Senator Richard Schweiker read a message of support at that year’s March for Life, during which many activists wore buttons proclaiming “Vote Pro-life.” It was at the Republican National Convention of that year that the GOP would officially adopt a pro-life platform with an overwhelming majority. Many of the formerly Democratic Catholics were being won over to the party of life.
Being a Catholic Democrat today
Even after Reagan’s presidency, the issue of life wouldn’t become as firmly polarizing as it is today for several years to come. As late as 1992, Bill Clinton ran on a Democratic platform that wanted to keep abortion “safe, legal and rare.” Even in 2006 and 2008, Howard Dean brought some hope to the party, said Kristen Day, executive director of Democrats for Life and author of “Democrats For Life: Pro-Life Politics and the Silenced Majority.”
“We were looking at candidates who were best for the district, who met the district needs, and we elected a bunch of pro-life Democrats and took back the house,” Day said. “It looked like we were coming back and we were an inclusive party again.”
But the Affordable Care Act and the so-called “War on Women” of 2010 brought the party back to a more extreme leftist stance, Day said.
“We’re at the lowest numbers since 1947...and if you look nationwide, the country is turning more towards acknowledging that there’s life in the womb, and supporting 20 week bans overwhelmingly, but the Democratic Party hasn’t really caught up with that.”
A 2013 Pew study found that 49 percent of Americans believe that having an abortion is morally wrong, far outnumbering those who regard abortion as morally acceptable (15 percent) or not a moral issue (23 percent). A 2015 AP survey found that abortion rates were plunging in many states — both those with more stringent abortion laws and those with more liberal abortion access.
“It’s this radical position that we’ve taken on abortion that is destroying the party,” Day said.
“I hear more people say, ‘I didn’t leave my party, my party left me.’ That is a common phrase I hear over and over again, or ‘I’ll come back if the party’s pro-life again,’” she said. “And a lot of those Democrats now are supporting Donald Trump.”
Winters said there is something people in both parties can do when they see politicians taking stands and making policies against life and other related issues.
“The thing that I would encourage my fellow Democrats who care about the unborn...is to speak up, just speak up, call out your own team. I would encourage my Republican friends to do the same. When Donald Trumps says ‘We’re going to ban Muslims,’ call him out. When he says ‘We’re gonna build a wall’ say ‘No we’re not.’”
The more united the Church can be on issues that span political lines, the more hope there is to change politics and culture, he added.
“I’ve talked about the ‘uns’ - the unborn, the unemployed, the undocumented, and basically that the Gospel message tells us as a Church that if you are an ‘un,’ if you are defined by how you do not belong to the culture, then that’s who the Church has to stand for.”
“And that’s very useful. It is very helpful to talk to a Republican and say, ‘You care so much about the unborn, why not the undocumented?’ Or the reverse to a Democrat: ‘You care so much about the undocumented, why not the unborn?’”
The future of the pro-life movement
In the immediate future, the parties seem destined to remain as gridlocked as ever on the abortion issue, Williams said. The parties are a long way from the Democratic Party of the early ‘70s, which championed other social justice issues while remaining pro-life.
“Pro-lifers are going to have to make a choice between these two stark alternatives that are both moving in directions which they would not like to see. The Republicans becoming more strongly conservative on most subjects and the Democratic Party becoming even more strongly committed to women’s reproductive rights,” he said.
“I think that there are a lot of pro-life millennials...who are looking for a way to combine their opposition to abortion with a broader social justice ethic, perhaps a social justice ethic that would include concern for the poor, environmental justice, any number of things, so I think that their votes may influence the parties at some point in the future,” he added.
Day said one of the best ways that the pro-life movement can move forward is to emphasize that they are just as pro-woman as they are pro-baby.
Programs and legislation that support pregnant women and working mothers by providing things such as paid family leave are something that most Democrats can get behind, she said.
Winters agreed that the best way forward was for the pro-life movement to make very obvious how pro-woman they are.
“You know how you’re walking down the street past the Subway store, and they pump the ovens vent out into the streets so that you smell the bread baking? That has to be the equivalent for us in the pro-life movement — you have to be able to smell down the street that we’re pro-women, and regrettably that has not always been the case.”
And in the face of some of the more recent news on the pro-choice side of things — taking offense to a pretty cute Doritos Super Bowl ad, videos of Planned Parenthood officials chatting about baby parts over lunch — “This is the time for us to be supremely intelligent,” Winters added.
“Those NARAL tweets during the Super Bowl really showed something to me about the out of touch, tone-deaf quality of so much of the pro-choice movement right now,” he said. “It’s a huge opportunity for us, but it’s not going to be overnight. And it will never happen if we don’t brand ourselves as a decidedly pro-woman movement, and I think that is key.”
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