WASHINGTON -- Leading Democrats, stung by election losses, are signaling they want the party to embrace antiabortion voters and candidates, softening the image of the party from one fiercely defensive of abortion rights to one that acknowledges the moral and religious qualms some Americans have about the issue.
House minority leader Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat who is one of the most ardent supporters of abortion rights in Congress, has encouraged Tim Roemer, a former representative with a strong voting record against abortion, to run for the chairmanship of the Democratic National Committee. The Democrats' new Senate minority leader, Harry Reid of Nevada, opposes abortion rights.
I don't think it's smart to have the Democrats change their position. They don't need to abandon a position on choice America agrees with. I think they need to do a better job defining choice as the mainstream value that it is.
Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America
No prominent Democrat has suggested that the party change its long-held stance that a woman should have the right to an abortion if she chooses. But as Democrats assess what went wrong for them in November, some are urging a "big tent" approach that is more welcoming to those who oppose abortion. Democrats say that attitude might be especially useful with Hispanics, a critical constituency that tends to be Roman Catholic and whose majority support for Democrats has slipped in recent elections.
Abortion rights activists are alarmed at the potential shift in the party's approach to the issue as they look warily ahead to Supreme Court nomination fights and efforts in Congress to restrict abortion. But Democratic leaders say they can reach out to voters in the "red states," which voted Republican in November, without compromising their party platform on abortion.
"All Democrats are united around the idea that we should make abortion safe, legal, and rare," but "we also have to be open to people who are pro-life," said Simon Rosenberg, the president of the New Democratic Network who is mulling a run for the DNC chairmanship.
Former Vermont governor and presidential candidate Howard Dean, who supports abortion rights, said the Democrats should "embrace" antiabortion voters and expand the term "pro-life" to such social issues as providing for children's medical care. "I have long believed that we ought to make a home for pro-life Democrats. . . . We can have a respectful dialogue, and we have to stop demagoguing this issue," Dean, another potential candidate for DNC chairman, said on NBC's "Meet the Press" earlier this month.
Kristin Day, executive director of Democrats for Life of America, said that during this year's campaign, she was frustrated by her inability to persuade the DNC to list the Internet link for her group on the DNC's website. But now, staffers for potential DNC candidates have been calling her to discuss including antiabortion Democrats in the party mix, she said.
"We're very encouraged. I think people are starting to wake up and say we can't alienate this whole wing of our party," she said. The group points to a Zogby poll indicating 43 percent of Democrats surveyed said they think abortion is manslaughter, a finding Day said shows the Democratic party leadership is out of synch with its members.
But abortion rights supporters worry that the right to abortion will be further eroded if the party weakens its position -- or even if it has high-profile leaders who favor restrictions or a ban on the procedure. Roemer, for example, said last week on CNN that those who don't favor bans on late-term abortion have a "moral blind spot" on the issue.
"Tim Roemer is the one with a 'moral blind spot,' " said Gloria Feldt, president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. "He is completely failing to consider the women whose lives may be in danger."
Abortion rights advocates are particularly worried that Democrats will fail to mount successful campaigns against antiabortion judicial nominees. Reid has said he would accept elevating Antonin Scalia, a justice who opposes abortion, to chief justice. Republican Senate leaders are considering an effort to eliminate the filibuster for judicial nominations, a threat some worry will make Democrats skittish about opposing all antiabortion nominees.
Feldt, who said she was not endorsing any particular candidate for the DNC, said the party should do a better job explaining its position on family planning issues, such as access to contraception and teen pregnancy prevention programs, instead of allowing Republicans to cast the Democrats as a party that favors abortion.
"Putting prevention [of unwanted pregnancies] first is a great vehicle to force the discussion. It will bring the conservative Democrats and many moderates together, and it will make the extreme right look as extreme as it is," Feldt said.
Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, agreed. "I don't think it's smart to have the Democrats change their position. They don't need to abandon a position on choice America agrees with. I think they need to do a better job defining choice as the mainstream value that it is."
Offering a warmer welcome for antiabortion voices would give Democrats a chance at bringing back voters who might agree with the party on economic and foreign policy issues, but balk at what they perceive is an uncompromising stance on abortion, Democrats said. Republicans, they note, finessed the matter so that the party retained its staunch antiabortion platform, but paraded Republican supporters of abortion rights such as California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani at the GOP convention this summer.
Both camps on the abortion issue claim to hold majority support for their positions; national polls tend to differ based on how the question is phrased. Representative Louise Slaughter, a New York Democrat who strongly supports abortion rights, noted that more than a million people thronged the streets of the Capitol earlier this year to demand that abortion be kept legal. But a Zogby poll conducted last year also indicated a red state-blue state divide; 57 percent of voters in states that voted for President Bush in 2000 favored restrictions on abortion or a ban on abortion, while 46 percent of voters in states that favored Democrat Al Gore would approve restrictions or a ban on abortion.
But even some who generally favor abortion rights become squeamish about the procedure in certain circumstances, said Marie Sturgis, executive director of Massachusetts Citizens for Life. Opponents of a procedure opponents labeled "partial birth abortion" -- a technique doctors use mainly in very late-term abortions -- made Democrats look "hard-line" on abortion, she said.
"The Democrats are not in touch; they're out of step with the electorate," Sturgis said. "The Democrats are trying to stay with the old methods, and they're not current."
"Listen, we need to be competitive in all 50 states. Our party needs to be able to converse on that issue. And have a big tent on that issue," Roemer said on CNN.
Brendan Daly, a spokesman for Pelosi, said the congresswoman would continue to be a vocal supporter of abortion rights in Congress, but would not oppose an antiabortion leader of the party. Pelosi approached Roemer about running for the DNC chairmanship but has not endorsed him for the post, Daly said.
Democrats could accept a leader who opposes abortion rights, but would not tolerate a weakening of the party's position on abortion, Slaughter said. The failing, she said, is that the party has not articulated its position well: "I don't think we ever said we're for abortion. We're for choice."
© 2004 Boston Globe