Abortion rights advocates celebrated a small victory when Howard Dean took his seat as chairman of the Democratic Party earlier this week, taking an unequivocal position on the subject in a time when many Democratic Party leaders seem to be wavering.
Dean’s appointment comes to abortion rights advocates as a hopeful indicator that abortion issues will remain in the forefront of the party’s agenda. Fears were raised last month when prominent Democrats, led by former Indiana congressman Tim Roemer, began to discuss “softening the [Party’s] stance” on abortion issues in order to appeal to more middle-ground voters. Roemer, who bowed out of the race for chairman last Monday, was backed by Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA).
“I'm not asking to rewrite the platform,” Roemer said on ABC's “This Week” in January. “We have a majority of our party, an overwhelming majority of our party, that is pro-choice, and I respect that. But I think we should not only be more inclusive on this issue, especially in the Midwest and the South if a candidate has those views, we should have them in our party.”
Pelosi, who has been a staunch advocate of choice, “did not officially endorse anyone,” said a caseworker in her San Francisco office, although “she did encourage him [Roemer] to run.” Abortion rights advocates were confused by Pelosi’s support for Roemer.
Many choice advocates were disappointed, albeit less confused, by Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) and her statement last month that abortion is a “sad, even tragic choice,” as she urged Democrats to continue seeking common ground on moral issues. Some view her statement as ambiguous and one online satirical newspaper declared Clinton “pro-chife.”
But abortion rights advocates, counting Dean among their ranks, feel that in the face of strong conservative opposition a softer stance on the part of the Democratic Party would have posed serious risks to their cause.
“We can change our vocabulary, but I don't think we ought to change our principles,” Dean told NBC’s “Meet the Press” in December. “We're not the party of abortion. We're the party of allowing people to make up their own minds about medical treatment.”
Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, one of the largest abortion rights organizations in the nation, agreed with Dean.
“I don't think it's smart to have the Democrats change their position,” Keenan said. “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.”
This conflict comes at a time when Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion, is again under conservative fire. Moves to restrict abortion rights, such as strategic cuts in funding, have been supported by President George W. Bush. In 2003, a ban on partial-birth abortions was passed by Congress and signed by Bush.
This year, as vacancies are likely to open in the Supreme Court, supporters of abortion rights are worried that Bush will appoint anti-abortion justices. Many believe that this conservative majority would overturn Roe v. Wade given the opportunity. If that were to occur, according to NARAL Pro-Choice America, 19 states would immediately outlaw abortion, and 19 more may follow soon after.
Supporters of abortion rights see the shift in discourse as a political ploy on the part of the Democratic Party.
“In 2004, people looked at the Democratic Party and asked, ‘What the hell do you stand for?’ And now they’re changing their minds again,” said Tracy Weitz, a visiting professor of Medical Sociology at Mills. “Democrats are so desperate to find a way to win that they don’t know what they stand for anymore.”
Last week, as Roemer and Dean drew closer to a face-off in the Democratic National Committee election, it became clear how important the abortion issue is for members of the Party. Roemer was unable to gain necessary support from a majority of DNC members. Bowing out of the race, he reiterated that the Democratic party ought to be more inclusive to those with differing moral standpoints, if only by opening new lines of communication.
“While we lost on the votes,” Roemer said, “we've certainly won on the conversations this party is going to have in the next 20 years.”