In April, Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez publicly said that the Democratic Party should only provide funding and support for pro-abortion rights candidates. “Every Democrat, like every American, should support a woman’s right to make her own choices about her body and her health,” he said. “That is not negotiable and should not change city by city or state by state.”
But much like Perez’s highly touted announcement in 2006 that he would run for Attorney General of Maryland before it was even clear he was eligible to run, he “jumped the gun” by not gathering the facts before making his public pronouncement.
Perez made his comments before even meeting with Democrats for Life, the primary organization that supports anti-abortion members of the party. And then he further compounded his mistake by not clarifying his stance as others in the party condemned it. In May, DNC spokesperson Xochitl Hinojosa told The Atlantic that the “party does not believe in a litmus test.” And scores of other party leaders, including Nancy Pelosi, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, have also denounced the idea. Just last week, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Ben Ray Luján said that he’s willing to fund anti-abortion candidates.
Those are the Democratic politicians on the right side of history. Despite what Perez would have you believe, not all Democratic voters have strong, uncompromising views on abortion. According to a 2015 CNN/ORC poll, only 48% — not even a majority — of Democrats believe abortion should be legal under any circumstance. The rest of the picture is more nuanced: 42% believe the procedure should be legal only in certain circumstances, while 9% say that it should be illegal in all circumstances. That’s a sizable chunk of the party that we can’t afford to lose.
Democrats haven’t always taken such a hard line on this issue. Prior to the Supreme Court’s landmark decision legalizing abortion in Roe v. Wade, many Democrats actually opposed abortion. Some liberal icons, including Ted Kennedy and Jesse Jackson, endorsed anti-abortion stances at times during their careers. And “Right to Life” Democrats in Congress have consistently played key roles in enhancing the party’s platform on healthcare, equal pay, climate change and the economy.
So why now are anti-abortion Democrats neither acknowledged nor encouraged within the party? We need to embrace these individuals who thankfully don’t vote on a single issue, but rather support our party’s whole program.
I offer my own legislative career as an example. As a Right to Life Democrat, I was honored to serve 18 years in the U.S. Congress, representing Michigan’s 1st Congressional District. Since my retirement in 2010, no Democratic Congressional candidate has won this seat. And the district has voted Republican in every presidential election since 2008, helping President Donald Trump win Michigan — and effectively, the election — in 2016.
In order for me to be elected nine times in my expansive, rural district, I needed the support of Democrats, Republicans and Independents alike. I know that my anti-abortion views sometimes frustrated my Democratic supporters, but they ultimately knew that I was fighting for them on most of the issues they cared about, including the economy, protecting our environment and providing healthcare for all.
Anti-abortion Democrats in Congress have proved invaluable to pushing through key party agenda items. I know some readers will bristle, but the U.S. House never would have been able to pass Obamacare without the Stupak Amendment, which protected the sanctity of life and prohibited public funding for abortion. The amendment convinced myself and my anti-abortion Democratic colleagues in the House to vote for the bill in the first place, which enabled the bill to cross the finish line. (The amendment later became an executive order that assured that federal funds would not be used to pay for abortion in most cases, which President Obama signed in March 2010).
What happened to the all-inclusive Democratic Party that I used to know? The one that welcomed diversity and differences of opinion, aided and encouraged the weakest in society and protected those who could not protect themselves — including the unborn.
For anti-abortion Democrats, Perez’s comments exposed just how far we’d come. We’re no longer the “Big Tent Party.” I fear we’re now the “pro-abortion rights” party. If we establish a litmus test on this single issue, we’ll surely turn away voters in key states and districts in 2018 and become a minority voice without an effective voice on economic and social policies.
Democrats haven’t controlled both chambers of Congress since 2011. Our numbers have gotten worse at the state level. In fact, by March 2016, our party held the fewest elected offices across the country since the 1920s. This has posed real problems for us. We lost the battle to confirm President Obama’s final nominee to the Supreme Court and Republicans were only three votes away from gutting Obamacare — and President Obama’s legacy.
In order to regain that power, we can’t draw a line in the sand on abortion. We need to embrace ALL Democrats across the political spectrum. That, Mr. Perez, should be non-negotiable.
Former Rep. Bart Stupak is a Democrat from Michigan who served 18 years in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1993 until his retirement in 2011. He is the author of For All Americans: The Dramatic Story Behind the Stupak Amendment and the Historic Passage of Obamacare.