Democrats Reach Out to Abortion Opponents

Democrats have reached out to abortion-rights foes by inviting the sons of the late Pennsylvania Gov. Robert Casey to speak today at their convention.

By Julia Campbell Aug. 17 — Democrats who oppose abortion rights say they are often pushed to the far reaches of their own party.

That happened in 1992 to Gov. Robert Casey of Pennsylvania, who was kept off the podium at the convention that would kick off Bill Clinton’s run for the presidency. They turned him down again in 1996.

Casey, though a well-respected Democrat, was against abortion rights.

Today, however, the governor’s sons, Robert Jr., the auditor general of Pennsylvania, and Patrick, a candidate for Congress, will introduce at this convention a video honoring their father, who died in May at the age of 68. Both sons share their father’s views on abortion.

Some say the tribute is a sign that Democrats are opening their ranks to a segment of the party that does not embrace its stance on abortion rights.

“It seems to be a very quiet attempt to try to reach out to those people who disagree with them on this issue,” said Carol Tobias, political director at the National Right to Life Committee.

Diversity: ‘A Source of Strength’

Indeed, calling itself a “party of inclusion,” the Democrats have written language into the party platform that recognizes that some members of the party oppose abortion rights. “We view this diversity of views as a source of strength, not a sign of weakness…” the platform reads.

The party, however, clearly supports abortion rights. Vice President Al Gore says he will “always, always defend a women’s right to choose.” And his running mate, Sen. Joseph Lieberman is also “pro-choice,” though he has expressed support for requiring minors to notify their parents before seeking an abortion.

With the new language in the party platform and the invitation of Robert Casey’s sons, the Gore campaign feels that it is making a clear effort to open the party doors to people on all sides of the controversial issue.

“People with differing views on the subject are welcome — unlike the Republicans,” Doug Hattaway said. “It says right in our platform that Democrats are united on many, many issues and where we disagree, where people disagree, we can talk about our differences.”

Still, as Tobias points out, Kate Michelman, president of the National Abortion Rights Action League, spoke during prime time Tuesday at the convention while the Casey sons will speak about their father and his views shortly before 6 p.m. ET today.

Minority in Party Wants to be Heard

In much the same way Republicans who support abortion rights say they feel alienated from their party, Democrats who oppose abortion say their views are not always received well by fellow Democrats.

“Even though the party is saying it wants to be inclusive, there is still a great deal of hostility,” toward anti-abortion rights Democrats, said Lois Kerschen, president of the Democrats for Life of America Inc., a national group founded last year. “The party has done a very good job of trying to convince people that it is solidly pro-abortion.”

But Kerschen said many Democrats want to dispel that notion and are trying to make their presence known at the Democratic National Convention this week in Los Angeles. Their hope is to bring back many Democrats, whom she believes left the party over the abortion issue.

Casey’s Legacy

In 1992, just months after he won re-election by more than a million votes, Gov. Casey had become a sort of pariah to his own party — and a martyr to the anti-abortion rights movement.

While Clinton Democrats denied him a place at the podium at the 1992 convention in New York, they gave speaking roles to six Republican women who favored abortion rights and pledged to vote for Clinton. Casey later complained that he and the other Pennsylvania delegates had been humiliated and relegated to seats in the back of Madison Square Garden.

In the weeks preceding the convention, Casey pressed the party to change its platform to no avail. He wanted it to read that “Democrats do not support abortion on demand,” said Karen Walsh, a former special assistant to the governor. The request was flatly rejected.

In fact, Walsh recalls, fellow Democrats even booed her and the governor at a party platform conference in Cleveland. Tonight, Casey will finally get the recognition, posthumously, that he deserves, say Democratic abortion opponents.

“The tribute will show what a principled man he was and how he stood up for his beliefs—even though it cost him politically,” Walsh said. “I almost think they feared him speaking because he was such an articulate spokesman.”

During his fight to be heard, the governor vowed that he would never switch parties, and after being rejected by Democrats, he turned down an invitation in 1992 to speak at the Republican National Convention. Walsh says that Casey believed Republicans “dropped the baby at birth.”

“He used to be very challenging to pro-life audiences, most of them Republicans,” Walsh said. “He would tell them ‘You can’t believe in the right to life if you don’t believe in the right to a decent life for both the mother and child.’”

Abortion Foes, Longtime Dems

Many Democrats who support abortion rights, says Kerschen, are often longtime party members and active politically. Kerschen has been interested in politics ever since she helped pass out John F. Kennedy bumper stickers as a child.

“We are Democrats and we are mostly people who have worked long and hard for the party,” Kerschen said. “We want to stay in the party and we feel we have a right to be here. We are not just Republicans in sheeps’ clothing.”

Some anti-abortion Democrats are respected leaders within the party. House Minority Whip David E. Bonior, D-Mich., who was considered briefly as a running mate, for one. There’s also Rep. Ike Skelton, a longtime congressman from Missouri.

“He has been a Democrat since the Truman days — so one issue is not going to have him bolt from the party,” said Lara Battles, Skelton’s legislative director. “He is definitely a Democrat.”

But at least one Democratic congressman, Rep. Ken Lucas of Kentucky, says he will not support Gore because he does not agree with the vice president’s views on abortion. Lucas says he will decline to nominate Gore tonight.

“I’m pro-life and he’s pro-choice,” Lucas told The Associated Press. He said he also agreed with the vice president’s positions on gun control and the tobacco industry.

Lucas, who is attending the convention and could not be reached, said he also is unsure whether he’ll vote for Gore in the general election. “We’ll see how it shakes out,” he told The Associated Press.