Anti-Abortion Democrats Argue for More Inclusion

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Katy Steinmetz for TIME

Former Michigan Representative Bart Stupak speaks to the media in Charlotte, N.C., on Sept. 4, 2012

Charlotte, N.C.

“Being pro-life in the Democratic Party can be a lonely place,” former Pennsylvania Representative Kathy Dahlkemper said on Tuesday. She and three fellow anti-abortion liberals were sitting on a Democrats for Life of America (DFLA) panel in a Charlotte hotel. Beside her was former Michigan Representative Bart Stupak, another Democrat who had taken heat over his anti-abortion stance. But if other pro-life politicians were elected and supported by their party, they argued, Democrats would appeal to more voters and take up more seats in the House of Representatives.

This year, DFLA was invited to give testimony to the Democratic Party’s platform committee. Stupak, a board member like all those on Tuesday’s panel, said their president asked that the platform language simply name and embrace pro-life Democrats as a key element of the party. That didn’t happen. “The Democratic Party strongly and unequivocally supports Roe v. Wade and a woman’s right to make decisions regarding her pregnancy, including a safe and legal abortion,” the platform reads. “We oppose any and all efforts to weaken or undermine that right.” But Dahlkemper argued that Democrats who oppose abortion would have great appeal in districts like the one she lost in western Pennsylvania in 2010, a place where economically liberal and socially conservative voters fervently support unions and oppose abortion.

Members of the panel named Hispanics, Catholics and young people as key constituencies that could be attracted by more flexibility on abortion rights. Steve Schneck, a research director at the Catholic University of America, broke down the Catholic vote. There are three broad groups, he said. One-third are Latinos who are “supportive of pro-life issues” but will still break for President Obama. Another third are strict Catholics who see abortion as a crucial issue, the majority of whom will vote for Mitt Romney but could be converted. And those remaining are more lax Catholics who are split between the two parties and are up for grabs. Successfully winning the voters in these groups, he said, “will depend, at least in part, on some degree of openness to the pro-life message.”

Another group that might be courted are young conservatives, many of whom are increasingly liberal when it comes to many social issues but oppose abortion with a fervor as strong as (or greater than) that of their forebears. According to a detailed Pew Research Center survey on the millennial generation, almost 40% of those who said they’re Republican or lean Republican support gay marriage. Meanwhile, the Republican platform is predictably unsupportive of gay-rights issues. This decoupling of values could force compromise for both parties in years to come, as gay Republicans argue.

In recent years, Dahlkemper and Stupak each had one salient claim to fame. Dahlkemper proposed the amendment to the Affordable Care Act that allows children to stay on their parents’ health-insurance plans until they’re 26 years old. Despite the popularity of that measure, she lost in 2010 by a wide margin, 56% to 44%. Stupak championed an amendment that would restrict the use of federal funds for abortion, voted for health care reform without the amendment attached — and then retired among criticism of caving on the issue.

While making the argument that more inclusion would mean greater strength for the party, Stupak conceded that Obama doesn’t stand to lose any particular battleground state in 2012 based on his, or the party’s, position on abortion rights. “At least they invited us to come and express our views,” he told reporters. “And there was some support [on the platform committee], just not the majority.” That’s a sentiment that reflects anti-abortion Democrats’ numbers in House, which dipped below 50 in the late 1990s and have been moving toward zero ever since.