Former Michigan Congressman Bart Stupak has one word to sum up the plight of the pro-life Democrat: “Lonely.”
“We’re not trusted in our party. We are not appreciated by Republicans, even though nothing can pass without us,” he told a gathering of pro-life Democrats in Denver. “It really is a hard road to go.”
Stupak was among the speakers at the Democrats for Life of America annual conference held July 20-22 on the theme “We want our party back.”
When Stupak joined Congress in 1992, there were 20 pro-life Democrats. Now there are only three who openly take a pro-life stand.
“I think there’s more, I think there’s a lot more,” he said. “But our numbers have dwindled so much that there’s no leadership within the Democratic Party to ask these members to vote for pro-life legislation.”
He said he was positive a 20-week ban on abortion could pass Congress with enough key pro-life Democrats. In his view, about 30 Democratic votes are needed to counter to votes of pro-choice Republicans.
“Republicans will never admit it but if you go back and look no right to life legislation can pass in the U.S. Congress without the support of Democrats,” said Stupak.
The nine-term Congressman was a key leader in an amendment intended to limit the provision of abortion in the 2010 health care bill known as the Affordable Care Act. His 2017 book “For All Americans” discusses the passage of the act.
“You need to constantly support the right-to-life Democrats. Remind them they’re doing the Lord’s work. You have to be there for them,” he told his audience. “We have to support our pro-life Democrats and have to remind our party why we are such an integral part.”
Lincoln Davis, a former congressman from Tennessee, also attended the Denver event. U.S. Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-Ill.), who faced a strong primary challenge this year from a candidate backed by pro-abortion rights groups, addressed the gathering in a pre-recorded video. He received the Democrats for Life Bob Casey Whole Life Award, named for the former governor of Pennsylvania.
Michael Wear, a political strategist who directed faith outreach for President Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign, spoke to the conference via live video. He recounted his background in an all-Democrat, blue-collar union family. When he became a Christian, he said, it “put new life and meaning behind what I viewed as the central commitments of the Democratic Party: fighting poverty, civil rights, human dignity.”
“The pro-life movement needs Democrats, and the Democratic Party need pro-lifers. You have earned your place in politics, we have earned our place. Our responsibility is to steward the influence we have as best we know how to do the most good as we know it,” he said.
While on some issue the Democratic Party did not necessarily fit, Wear said, “you join a political party not for that party to influence you, but for you to influence that party.”
“Registering for a political party does not mean signing one’s conscience over to “every jot and tittle of the party platform,” he told the audience.
“You’re willing to hold in the tension of contributing to something you don’t always agree with all the time… but our civic life is not just about our personal preferences. It’s about the common good, about how we live together,” said Wear. “Political parties are a very important way of how to do that.”
Wear saw the Democratic Party of 2006 and 2008 as better for pro-life advocates than the current situation. In his view, the pro-life movement is a “helpful, sort-of-nagging element” that pushes Democrats to “stand up for life.”
He believed President Barack Obama cautioned his party against alienating others, including on the issue of abortion. Obama’s controversial visit to the University of Notre Dame had positive elements for Wear. The Democratic Party platform at the time had language about reducing abortion, language which “ended up pleasing nobody,” the president decided to keep this language in his speech.
The conference drew some opposition from Colorado Democrats and Democrat-leaning groups.
Progress Now Colorado, which previously attracted attention for misleading ads against pro-life pregnancy centers in the state, ran internet ads critical of the conference. In a parking lot outside the conference hotel, the group set up a billboard truck which said, “abortion access is a progressive value.”
On the morning of July 21, several critics gathered outside the hotel for a small press conference: Karen Middleton, executive director of NARAL Colorado; Sam DeWitt, access campaign manager for Compassion and Choices Colorado; and Democratic state legislators Sen. Rhonda Fields and Reps. Leslie Herod and Jovan Melton.
Herod objected to the effort to make space for Democrats who are opposed to abortion.
“Democratic values are not up for debate… the national and Colorado Democratic platforms are clear. Upholding the legal right for anyone to access a safe and legal abortion is essential and non-negotiable,” she said.
Herod characterized abortion as fundamental “to achieving the kind of gender, race and economic equality that we as Democrats have been fighting for, for decades.”
“Let me be clear: a Democrat is someone who stands for equality, stands for choice, stands for racial justice. If you don’t stand for those things then you are not a Democrat,” she said.
Middleton, herself a former Democratic state legislator, said Colorado was “a solidly pro-choice state” and contended that those gathered for the conference were not in fact Democrats, but present “under a ruse.”
“This notion, a false narrative of a false move into the party really needs to be pushed back,” she said. “We’re here to say, ‘No, we don’t believe you, you are not welcome here, we want to see you really let us move forward together, unifying access to abortion care for all.'”
Over a dozen pro-life Democrats and their allies held a brief counter-demonstration. Playing up the regional Planned Parenthood affiliate’s opposition to unionization of its workers, they held signs such as “Pro-Labor, Pro-Life.”
Just minutes later, the conference hosted speaker Justin Giboney, an attorney and political strategist from Atlanta who was elected as a delegate to the 2012 and 2016 Democratic National Conventions.
“A lot of Democrats disagree with the party on abortion but stay silent. We’ve got to speak up,” he said. “Without the assumption of ill intentions on the part of pro-lifers, people would have to acknowledge that there is another life at stake in these debates.”
He said he appreciates the Democratic Party’s “commitment to serving the least of these” and its recognition that government “has a role to play in improving people’s lives.
“The party must not turn away from these fundamental values,” he added.
Giboney, who is African-American, said his formation in traditional black Protestantism “means my faith cannot be separated from my politics.” He placed himself in the Progressive Era tradition of social programs for the poor, workers’ rights, government reform, and criminal justice issues.
Giboney rejected political progressivism that defines itself in “the Western European expressive individualism, permissive culture sense of the term.” While many people appreciate the Democratic Party’s stand on immigration and heath care, he said, they “see the party as speeding recklessly away not only from a sense of morality, but also a sense of reason, a sense of pluralism, and moving so far left on social issues that it is irresponsible. It has become illiberal.”
He feared that other issues will be sidelined for secular progressive issues he said are being championed and funded by a few interest groups.
According to Giboney, there were groups that wanted him kicked out of the Georgia delegation to the Democratic convention. He worried the party is “openly engaging in religious exclusion” to limit the participation of people with certain religious beliefs, hindering any pro-life Democrats’ run for office.
Such candidates will not get exposure or funding if they maintain their beliefs publicly; staff will leave candidates because they fear they won’t get a job later.
“While the party accepts the vote of religious voters, it will treat them as unfit if they try to run for public office,” he charged.
In Giboney’s view, some pro-life advocates on the political right had contributed to false narratives. He found it hard to relate to the Republican Party's version of the pro-life movement, which he said isn’t “whole life.”
“How can you care about the unborn, if you don’t care about the poor or the immigrant?” he asked. “People ask these questions because too many pro-lifers don’t have a strong record on some of these other issues.”
He stressed the need for pro-life advocates to show compassion for people in a crisis situation and to do more than simply encourage a pregnant woman to have a child, who will then grow up in poverty and the pressures of a harsh criminal justice system.
“I think pro-life Democrats are in the best position to do those things and we need to take up that task.”