2018 1st Runner-Up, by Casey Cho
Support for legalized abortion with minimal restriction has become so identified with the Democratic Party that it is hard for many to imagine any alternative viewpoint among Democrats. Dissenting pro-life Democrats come under attack from both other Democrats and other abortion opponents. For the former, opponents to abortion in the party are merely the vestigial remnants of an unfortunate past who ought to be swept into the dustbin of history along with the segregationist Dixiecrats. By contrast, much of the national anti-abortion movement sees pro-life Democrats as constituting a Potemkin village: useful during national elections for winning conservative-leaning votes but otherwise muzzled and impotent. However, an honest reckoning of the evidence shows no contradiction in being a pro-life Democrat and that in fact is the most coherent and consistent position.
The supposed death of the pro-life Democrat has been much exaggerated. Dozens of them hold office at the federal and state levels. Governor John Bel Edwards won a decisive victory in conservative Louisiana and subsequently pursued both pro-life and progressive policies in office, becoming one of the most popular governors. Polling suggests up to one-third of Democratic Party voters identify as pro-life, translating to several million voters. The most recent testament to the enduring strength of pro-life Democrats occurred this year when Representative Dan Lipinski in Illinois beat back a pro-choice primary challenger despite unprecedented campaigning against him.
Thus pro-life Democrats do exist and in some number. However, is there not an ideological or philosophical contradiction? In its 200 years of history, the Democratic Party has claimed, albeit imperfectly, to be the party that stands for the rights and interests of “the people”. The modern incarnation derives from the Depression when Democrats recognized social welfare programs and amelioration of economic inequality were necessary, and the Civil Rights revolution of the sixties when the party finally began to champion people of color, women, and LGBTQ individuals. Naturally, pro-choice advocates see abortion rights as part of this evolution. However, the dynamics of abortion diverge from these other issues since the right to an abortion produces a conflict with the right to life of the unborn fetus who is inevitably killed in the procedure. Ironically, the closest parallel is not to civil rights battles but rather debates over gun ownership which produce a similar tension of rights given the deadly nature of firearms.
Instead, the pro-life position is much closer to the views and values of the Democratic Party in many respects. It advances both individual rights and egalitarianism by arguing that the fetus is entitled to the basic right to life which they possess by being a human being, regardless of any other qualifier. At the same time, they affirm the ideal of solidarity for both individuals and society. While the pro-life movement generally agrees that the mother has a unique bond and duties to the child meaning that financial considerations or reasons of convenience cannot justify abortion, its more conservative adherents fail to extend this logic further. When it comes to dealing with the economically underprivileged including poor children and their parents, many fall back upon arguments extolling individualism that echo pro-choice arguments about abortion rights as self-empowerment and the need for markets to be utterly unfettered by any social consideration regardless of how inimical the results may be for human life. By contrast, pro-life Democrats recognize that reducing and eliminating abortion requires a multi-pronged strategy beyond but not exclusive of passing legislation against it and which would be driven by recognition that solidarity needs to be extended to one’s neighbors and fellow citizens. They recognize that while free markets have produced tremendous wealth and growth, their unfettered operation results in social atomization that undermines the natural bonds of society, especially the family. They realize that higher wages, paid leave, free childcare, and guaranteed health insurance for families not only eliminate incentives to an abortion but allow children to live healthy, fulfilling lives even after their birth. Similarly, they see that affirming pro-life values requires standing with refugees and immigrants fleeing violence and want at home as well as LGBT Americans who are disproportionately at risk of suicide.
Speaking frankly, this is the intersectionalist position that positively affirms both the right to life of the unborn but also the underlying socioeconomic, racial, and sexual hierarchies that contribute to abortion and otherwise cheapens human life and dignity. Not only is there no contradiction in being a pro-life Democrat, but it is the most internally consistent by resolving many of the tensions that both the standard Republican and Democratic views have. By offering a clear vision of a better America where life is respected at all stages and every human being can live lives of dignity and meaning, pro-life Democrats can build a new political coalition that will actually achieve this brighter future.
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