When I was sixteen years old I attended a liberal school in a liberal town in New York. Across the street from the side entrance, two older men sat every day – rain, sleet, twelve feet of snow, whatever – with a bloody fetus doll stapled to thick poster board and the words “American Holocaust!” and “Will you kill your baby?”
As I walked to my car I would stare at these men, completely confused about what they were doing. I had seen protesters before, mainly protesting the Iraq War, but that was a cause I could understand and support. I couldn’t understand or support what these men were doing. Even at a young age, I realized that my body was my own. I decided to become an activist the day I saw those two old men sitting outside a public high school with that bloody fetus doll – no one was going to regulate my body or my life choices.
The political arena has changed between then and now, however, and inside the arena it has only become more complex. Nothing’s simple anymore. America elected Donald Trump, someone who promised to build a wall, get rid of all the “illegals,” and “make America great again.”
Yet many of these voters were moderates, and still remain perched on that moderate political line. So as Democrats lick their wounds from the loss of the 2016 presidential election and various special elections around the country, the following question appears to be hanging in the air: Is the way to win to go pro-life?
The Republican Party has always been home to those that are pro-life. Politicians like Vice President Mike Pence have run on this platform and won on this platform. A recent Gallup poll broke up attitudes on choice by partisan affiliation, showing that Democrats identifying as “pro-choice” rose from 56 percent to 68 percent since 2001. Another recent poll conducted by Pew Research Center also showed a percentage of Democrats that believe that abortion should be legal “in all or most cases” rose to 75 percent from 64 percent in 1995. (This same poll showed that 65 percent of Republicans believe abortion should be illegal “in all or most cases”). The numbers are there. Nonetheless, many contemporary Democrats are the generation of their parents and grandparents, many of whom were still connected to a traditional view of religion and culture that made the very idea of abortion taboo.
Regardless, present day Democrats continue to be liberal on social issues, economic issues, and on the issue of abortion – or at least we thought.
This question of pro-life vs pro-choice in the Democratic Party has caused an audible gasp from anyone that feels they are a true progressive. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee only this summer said they would not withhold funding for pro-life candidates in the party. Representative Ben Ray Lujan from New Mexico went so far as to say, “As we look at candidates across the country, you need to make sure you have candidates that fit the district, that can win in these districts across America.” Progressives see themselves as the next generation, the new generation, and the one that will solve the challenges left to us from the previous generation. How we define ourselves is by advocating for social reform and new ideas, not rehashing a core political value that was settled in 1973 after Roe vs Wade.
Traditional centrists Democrats need to recognize that progressives are a large part of the movement we are seeing right now in Virginia. We are creating activist groups, non-profits, demonstrating, and starting organizations to stop the injustices caused from by the Trump presidency. And yet the party that progressives are supposed to belong to – the Democratic Party – is still trying to figure out how to create a winning strategy even though all the ingredients are there. This is leading many members of the Democratic Party to examine whether that means taking a more moderate stance on choice. Virginia Democrats should be wary of this. It was only in 2012 that disgraced former Governor Bob McDonnell infamously sponsored a mandatory transvaginal ultrasound bill.
Interestingly, 60 percent of independent voters, according to a Pew Research Center poll that tracked views on abortion between 1995-2017 found that abortion should be legal in all or most cases. This is important because the same poll showed that in most cases 75 percent of Democrats believe that abortion should be legal in all or most cases. These numbers also show that independent voters were not utilized properly during the 2016 election and millions of votes were lost – something that could have easily been avoided.
We shouldn’t be pandering to pro-life moderates. Instead we should be asking ourselves, “how do we reach these independent voters?” How can Democrats stay true to the ideals of the party (protecting women and those most vulnerable) while still bringing in new progressive voters that feel disappointed and misled for the last eight years, if they don’t fully support choice?
The topic of abortion and choice is one of the most significant issues that will ever exist – not just for women, but also progressives and independents. But there is also a larger issue. The female body, including birth and breastfeeding, are things that neither party has figured out how to discuss, let alone legislate. Yet they are essential parts of our being.
Reproductive rights should be unequivocally synonymous with the Democratic party, as it was in the past. Fighting for women’s rights, continuing to fight for a woman’s right to choose… this is the way to engage and empower young and powerful progressives and independents. Unfortunately, this message is not one that the Democratic powers that be appear to have identified at this time.
Indeed, Democrats need a shift after the disastrous years of 2014- 2016. Democrats, too often, apologize for their own messaging, for their own leaders, for their own party. Democrats are too good at losing, and as a party we need to make changes in all aspects: from who is running to how their policies, platforms, and politics are marketed and messaged.
Nonetheless, Donald Trump didn’t win because he was pro-life. Donald Trump won because he played to the worst excesses of middle America. So I believe the answer is to ditch the word moderate, and to stop trying to disenfranchise the progressive base by going soft on things like reproductive rights and choice. It’s time for the Democratic Party to embrace its progressive base. That is the future. If they don’t, they risk losing them forever. The Democratic party does not have to shift its ideals around to placate moderates or independents who might be pro-life, especially in Virginia. That is a terrible idea. Instead the Democratic party would benefit by an overall shift in party identity, and recognizing the core values we will always stand for.