Prolife Democrats

An oxymoron?

 

Paul Wellstone was my friend and mentor, but he was not my candidate in Minnesota’s 2002 senatorial campaign that brought about his tragic death. I supported Norm Coleman, an erstwhile Democrat who had been driven out of the party because he’s prolife. Coleman ultimately was elected in a close race with Wellstone’s successor, former Vice President Walter Mondale. Mondale aggressively championed abortion rights, and Coleman won with heavy and highly visible Catholic support. "Catholics for Coleman" signs were prominently featured in the campaign. In recent election cycles, polls have shown Catholic voters frequently migrating from their traditional Democratic allegiance to cast Republican votes. The trend is not driven by a loss of Catholic social-justice concerns. It has everything to do with abortion-rights absolutism in the Democratic Party. I’m a representative Catholic voter who exemplifies this trend. I was a student in the first political science classes that Paul Wellstone ever taught at Carleton College. I enjoyed hours of competition with Paul in the Carleton wrestling room (he had been an outstanding college wrestler, and I was the captain of Carleton’s team). Paul’s eloquent social-justice advocacy influenced me to join the McGovern presidential campaign and later to serve as a VISTA lawyer after graduation from Harvard Law School. For nearly three decades, I described myself as a prolife Democrat. I voted for Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale, wincing at their prochoice views, but swayed by their advocacy for working people, the poor, and the environment. I applauded Paul Wellstone’s championing of those causes in the Senate. In Democratic Party caucuses, I argued the prolife position year after year with little effect. I was always baffled at the capacity of Democrats to denounce economic libertarianism and then to embrace libertarian positions on abortion. When it came to so-called reproductive choice, Paul Wellstone and his protégés all abruptly started to talk like Milton Friedman. Minnesota was one of a handful of states where prolife Democrats were long a genuine political force. Large Catholic populations in farming areas and on the Iron Range made economically progressive, anti-abortion candidates viable. Even today, prolife Democrats represent two rural congressional districts. State party officials and the activists who dominated endorsing conventions were adamantly prochoice, but prolifers were sometimes able to beat the party’s endorsees in primary contests. In 1993, Coleman, a charismatic prolifer, won the Democratic primary and subsequently was elected as the mayor of Saint Paul. This development gladdened the hearts of those of us who had fruitlessly labored for years in the party’s urban precinct caucuses. It seemed possible that we could link Coleman’s urban base with farmer-labor votes in rural areas to elect a prolife Democrat as governor or senator. Those hopes were dashed when prochoice cohorts drove Coleman out of the party. He was booed and shouted down at party meetings, including the 1996 state convention when he spoke to endorse Wellstone and Bill Clinton. When Clinton campaigned in Saint Paul, party organizers spitefully snubbed the mayor by not inviting him to attend. Months later, Coleman joined the Republican Party. Meanwhile, Clinton, Wellstone, and most of the Senate Democrats took prochoice ideology to new extremes. They opposed attempts to outlaw partial-birth abortion-a practice in which a late-term, fully sentient fetus is pulled alive through the birth canal until only its head remains undelivered, then killed with a stab of a surgical scissors. The American Medical Association (AMA) certified that this procedure is never medically necessary. Still, leading Democrats demanded a "health" exception to any ban-a loophole that would allow abortionists to use their own "medical" judgment to provide and employ the procedure whenever they chose. The partial-birth abortion issue and its sequelae have led me to put aside the "prolife Democrat" label. I’m now a political agnostic. I take no delight in voting Republican, but I’m likely to do so for any office that deals with abortion legislation or judicial nominees. The prolife Democratic position is growing untenable. Those who still maintain it should read the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Carhart v. Stenberg (2000), including the dissents. Then look at the Web site of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) (www.democrats.org). Carhart v. Stenberg struck down a partial-birth abortion ban that had passed the Nebraska state legislature by a vote of forty-five to one (a ban that had been replicated in Congress and in twenty-nine other states). The decision is jarring not just for its outcome, but for its inhuman, desensitized tone. The Court calmly assesses the relative merits of dismembering late-term babies in the vaginal canal by tearing off their arms and legs or by sucking their brains out and crushing their skulls. The discussion is utterly dispassionate and utterly Orwellian. Carhart exemplifies the "darkening of conscience" of which Pope John Paul II warned in Evangelium vitae. When this sort of nihilism is handed down as constitutional law, all human values stand in jeopardy. In tone, in principle, and in cultural ramifications, Carhart and similar cases embody the law of the jungle. The Democratic Party is intent on maintaining Carhart and the whole panoply of current abortion rights, without stint or moderation. Here’s the lead feature on the DNC Web site as of November 15, 2002 (a few days after the midterm elections): Republicans are planning to endanger women’s lives and attack their right to choose as soon as they take control of the Senate, according to Mississippi Senator Trent Lott, who will be the new Majority Leader....Lott announced that criminalizing certain life-saving medical procedures used in abortions was his top legislative priority....The criminalization of so-called "partial-birth abortions" is just the tip of the iceberg for the Republicans, as right-wing, antichoice activists plan a full agenda of legislation designed to restrict a woman’s right to choose (emphasis added). This is Orwellian mendacity. Again, the AMA has stated that partial-birth abortion is never medically indicated, let alone a "life-saving procedure." Support for unrestricted abortion rights has been a litmus test for judicial appointments throughout the past two years, when Democrats controlled the Senate Judiciary Committee. If Democrats control the Senate, no judge with any openness to trimming back Roe v. Wade in any respect will be allowed near the appellate bench. Support for unrestricted abortion rights is mandatory for Democratic Party endorsement for virtually any office in most states. It’s nearly impossible to run as a prolife Democrat in many states with large Catholic populations-Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York. The party simply won’t allow it. Catholic sensitivities are not accommodated to any extent whatever, but are held in open contempt. (California Democrats recently passed a bill compelling Catholic hospitals to train doctors in abortion.) A striking example of contempt for the teachings of the church is enshrined, despite vigorous protests, on the DNC’s Web site. The site includes a link to Catholics for a Free Choice (CFC), an abortion lobby (until recent protests, it was the only "Catholic" listing on the site). CFC is a sham, and has been denounced repeatedly by the American bishops. It has no membership base, no theology, and no ties to the church. It is funded by hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants from large secular foundations-Ford, Rockefeller, and the like. Outrageously enough, it has accepted money from the Playboy Foundation. No serious Catholic should lightly support a political party that promotes this sort of cynical imposture. I freely grant that the Republican Party has great flaws of its own. I don’t like tax cuts skewed to benefit the rich, and I don’t like drilling for oil in wildlife preserves. I’m an agnostic and not a Republican. Yet at this point in our nation’s history, I’m more afraid of Hollywood and its values (Hollywood being a principal financier of the Democratic Party) than I am of the oil companies and theirs. With nihilism widespread in the courts, and with the brave new world of biotechnology heaving over the horizon, few things seem more urgent than keeping judicial appointments and other key cultural levers out of Democratic hands. I have an undiminished desire for a party that embodies Catholic social-justice teaching-one that is both prolife and propoor. Neither party provides a good prospect for this, but conceivably it could develop from Republican "compassionate conservatism." It can’t arise where people are bent upon preserving Carhart v. Stenberg. When Democrats declare "choice" the highest value, they forfeit their ability to critique coherently free-market arguments and to advocate for the poor. The Republicans at least know that life is sacred. Every social-justice initiative ultimately depends on that.

Published in the 2003-01-17 issue: 

John D. Hagen Jr. is a lawyer in Minnesota.

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