While some Iowa Democrats pushed back against the presidential candidates’ strong support for abortion at Monday’s state caucus, other “moderate” pro-life voters backed pro-abortion candidates anyway.
With recent polling suggesting that there are as many as 21 million pro-life Democrats in the country, their support, and how they prioritize life issues, could play a key role in picking the Democratic candidate for this year’s presidential election. CNA spoke to Democratic caucus goers and precinct captains to find out how pro-lifers lined up for Monday’s Iowa caucus.
Iowa, the first of the states to vote for the Democratic presidential nominee, held its caucuses on Monday evening. Due to systemic failure of electronic tallying software, no official winner was declared and precinct results were not released until Tuesday afternoon. Final results had still not been issued by Wednesday morning, but preliminary returns and in-house predictions from candidates’ campaigns suggested a win for Pete Buttigieg, with Sen. Bernie Sanders in a close second.
Kathy Richardson, a pediatric nurse practitioner in Carroll, Iowa, and a precinct captain for Joe Biden, said the issue was still being brought up to her in last-minute canvassing for Biden on Monday.
The life issue, she told CNA, is extremely important to everyone in the state, Catholics in particular. While some national campaigns have encouraged women to “shout your abortion,” Richardson said she doesn’t know anyone who favors abortion.
“It’s awful,” she said, telling CNA that as a nurse practitioner she believes that life begins at conception.
Nevertheless, Richardson said she believed that the state “shouldn’t be telling women what to do for their body and health,” and that the adult mother should have greater rights than an embryo who is not yet viable.
Recent polling shows that 44% of Democrats nationally support a ban on abortion after the first trimester of pregnancy.
Democratic presidential candidates like Andrew Yang, Buttigieg, and Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) have explicitly said that, even in late-term abortion scenarios, the decision should be up to the mother and not lawmakers.
Late-term abortions are “horrifying,” Richardson said, but are rare and usually done for the health of the mother. They should be restricted only to cases of rape, incest, or when the life of the mother is at stake, she said—a formula considered a “traditional” Democratic position for moderate voters in west Iowa.
In the current Democratic presidential lineup, every candidate supports taxpayer-funded abortion—which many Democrats used to oppose, including Joe Biden before he reversed his position last summer. And while “safe, legal, and rare” used to define the abortion stances of many politicians, Sanders in a recent debate challenged “the men of this country” to support abortion, and called the practice “healthcare,” while Warren said that “abortion rights are human rights.”
The 2016 DNC platform called abortion “core to women’s, men’s, and young people’s health and wellbeing” and advocated for taxpayer-funded abortion.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that the right to life must be recognized by civil society. Pope St. John Paul II wrote in his encyclical Evangelium Vitae that “a law which violates an innocent person's natural right to life is unjust and, as such, is not valid as a law.”
Two precinct captains for Biden and Buttigieg in Carroll County justified their support for the pro-abortion Democrats by pointing to Republicans, who, Richardson claimed, “don’t care about the child when it’s born,” citing proposals to cut to food stamps and pediatric education.
“What this administration has done to the children at the border,” she asked of Trump policy which separated migrant families. Richardson said the policy “breaks [her] heart” and could cause lasting trauma for children.
Buttigieg’s precinct captain Kyle Ulveling, who is also chair of the Iowa Board of Medicine, estimated that voters in Carroll were “moderate” on the abortion issue and that around 60 of the 81 caucus-goers at the Ward 1 precinct were “pro-life.”
Illustrating the gap between voters and candidates, each of the candidates that received first-ballot votes at the precinct—Yang, Warren, Sanders, Biden, Buttigieg, and Klobuchar— has come out in support of codifying Roe v. Wade into federal law, and enshrining taxpayer-funding for abortion. Three of the candidates support making abortion-inducing drugs available over-the-counter. Warren and Sanders would have abortion and contraception covered under their Medicare-for-All plans.
Some pro-life Democrats, however, are actively pushing for change within the party and won’t support the presidential front-runners.
One week before the caucuses, at a Des Moines townhall, Kristen Day asked Buttigieg point-blank if he wanted the support of her and other pro-life Democrats.
“I am pro-choice,” Buttigieg responded. “And I believe that a woman ought to be able to make that decision [on abortion].” He added that if pro-life Democrats wouldn’t support him for that, he understood.
Day said she received encouragement from nearby audience members for her question, but Buttigieg was also greeted with loud applause for his answer upholding legal abortion.
“We’ve had enough,” Day told CNA afterwards, calling on pro-life Democrats to hold candidates accountable on the issue.
“We are told time and time again that it is not the right time to fight for what we believe in,” Kristen Day, executive director of Democrats for Life of America, stated in a Facebook post on Tuesday. “We believe that life in the womb is worthy of protection. Our party does not.”
“Too many people whisper, ‘I am a pro-life Democrat too. Keep up the good work.’ But they fear the repercussions of stating this position in public,” Day said, adding that “our party can and should do better, and we will not be silent.”
Lizzy Dowd, a Catholic student at Drake University in Des Moines, was present that evening. She planned to advocate for pro-life language in the party’s platform at her neighborhood precinct on Monday night.
“I am not trying to infiltrate this party with my pro-life views. Rather, I would love to just see a positive change, I’d love to see people’s minds and hearts be opened,” Dowd told CNA on Monday.
She credited her pro-life views to growing up in a household that emphasized “the mentality of the sanctity of life in action.”
“If we as Democrats are going to uphold the dignity of the person at the border, and inmates on death row, and the homeless and those struggling in poverty, then it only makes sense to uphold the life and the dignity of that child in the womb as well,” she said.
“I would love to take that one step further and respect every life.”
Another Democrat did not caucus on Monday night. Jim Plew, who attended Mass on Tuesday morning at St. Mary of Nazareth parish in suburban Des Moines, told CNA he identified as a Democrat did not caucus on Monday because of the candidates’ uniform support of abortion. Plew told CNA he was still undecided in the election.
Another Catholic CNA spoke with, after daily Mass on Monday in St. Anthony’s parish in south Des Moines, said she would be voting for Trump and named the life issue as her first issue. Another Trump supporter in Carroll, Dennis Ritchie, gave as his first reason of support that Trump “is against abortion.”
“Nobody else talks about the children,” Ritchie told CNA.
In the more heavily-Catholic Dubuque, on the eastern edge of the state, one Catholic college student caucused for Sanders and pleaded with other Catholics to do the same.
Carlos Garrido—a Catholic student at Loras college in Dubuque—supported Sanders because he saw his mother forego medical treatment for a condition to spare the family from medical debt. He thinks Sanders’ advocacy for Medicare-for-All is part of Catholic Social Teaching, along with his opposition to “war,” support for affordable education, and other issues.
Sanders’ proposal would have abortions and contraceptives covered in Medicare-for-All, and he said more abortions and contraceptives should made available for women in poor countries in response to a townhall question about population control as a means to slow climate change.
Garrido acknowledged Sanders’ abortion support wouldn’t square with Church teaching but said that the provision of contraceptives in Sanders’ health plan would reduce abortions. The Catholic Church teaches that contraception is immoral.
“I realize that that’s not ethical,” Garrido said of abortion, “but I think it’s important to address the problems of the human beings that are here now that are suffering, and then to focus on the problems of beings that have the potentiality of becoming human beings.”
“Maybe I divert a little bit from the Church on that aspect,” Garrido said, citing his concern with addressing “suffering that is here now” and that “29,000 kids are still dying every day from preventable causes.”
According to the World Health Organization statistics from 2010-2014, around 56 million abortions were conducted per year, or more than 150,000 per day.
The U.S. Catholic bishops, in a letter accompanying their document “Faithful Citizenship,” called abortion a “preeminent” priority among other important issues, a priority underscored recently by Pope Francis.
In eastern Iowa, “the Catholic community here has suffered from immense propaganda that makes them become one-issue voters,” Garrido said, claiming that Sanders “checks off every one of” the boxes of Catholic Social Teaching. “Maybe not the abortion one, but if he’s checking off everything else except for one, I think that’s a lot better than a candidate who only checks off one,” he said.
Dowd, meanwhile, expressed her frustration that pro-life Democrats would support a pro-abortion candidate because of another issue.
“We can’t continue to allow these extremist pro-abortion candidates into office, and keep thinking they’re going to make our culture more pro-life, because you can’t make the culture more pro-life while still allowing these very extreme abortion policies like late-term abortion and partial-birth abortion,” she said.
“We have to have those laws in place in order for life to be truly respected at every stage,” she said.