Aug. 13, 2008 — -- The Democratic Party is planning a convention designed to soften the edges on the party's support for abortion rights, with a revamped platform and a speaking lineup that reinforces efforts to broaden Democrats' appeal on the hot-button issue.
In a statement fraught with symbolism for those on both sides of the abortion debate, Sen. Bob Casey Jr., D-Pa., an abortion-rights opponent, will be given a prime speaking slot at the Democratic National Convention in Denver later this month.
Casey's father, the late Pennsylvania Gov. Robert Casey, a Democrat who also held strong anti-abortion views, was denied a speaking role at the party's 1992 convention -- a perceived snub that has long been a flashpoint in the party's wrangling over how to handle the abortion-rights debate on the national stage.
In addition, Democrats have adopted a platform that builds on the party's traditional language about preserving Roe v. Wade with pledges to support women who decide against having abortions.
"No one expects the Democratic Party not to support Roe v. Wade, but here we've gone from dogmatic positions to practical solutions," said the Rev. Jim Wallis, a prominent voice in the religious left who consulted with party leaders on ways to signal the party's commitment to reducing the number of abortions.
"The language in the platform is a real step forward," Wallis added. "For those women who want to take the child to term, it strongly supports that choice and provides necessary support."
The change in tone is an outgrowth of years-long efforts by prominent party leaders -- including Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada (Reid opposes abortion rights) -- to change the way the Democratic Party talks about abortion rights, if not the way the issue is approached on policy grounds.
In some ways, it's a mirror-image of efforts by national Republicans, who used their 2004 convention, for example, to highlight prominent party members who support abortion rights, including former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
While Sen. John McCain is a longtime opponent of abortion rights, next month's Republican National Convention is expected to include former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge and Sen. Joe Lieberman, the independent Democrat from Connecticut -- two potential McCain running mates who describe themselves as "pro-choice."
Despite the image change Democrats are projecting, Sen. Barack Obama is a strong supporter of abortion rights. In the past few days, he has come under fire from former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a Republican, and other conservatives for opposing a bill in the Illinois legislature that sought to define a fully born baby who survived an abortion as a person.
"If you are a pro-life conservative, this vote is chilling," Huckabee wrote in an e-mail to supporters. "We cannot risk an Obama presidency, and we certainly cannot risk a Democrat president and Democrat Congress working together to pass an anti-life agenda."
Obama has defended his vote by saying that it would have undermined the overarching right to an abortion.
Prominent abortion-rights advocates say they're comfortable with the platform changes -- and the prominent inclusion of Casey -- because they believe they have a strong ally at the top of the ticket.
"Sen. Casey endorsed Sen. Obama and campaigned for him in Pennsylvania, so it is not a surprise that Sen. Obama will include his supporters in the convention," said Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America.
"Sen. Obama is fully pro-choice, and the party's platform reflects, in the strongest terms, his solid commitment to a woman's right to choose," Keenan said. "Our focus is electing Sen. Obama as the next president because his administration will advance pro-choice policies that will protect women's freedom and privacy, unlike John McCain, who we know will continue the failed anti-choice policies of George W. Bush."
Other abortion rights groups also didn't appear concerned by news Wednesday that Casey would speak at the Democratic convention.
"While Sen. Casey's position on a woman's right to choose is at odds with the Democratic Party platform, the Democratic Party's strength is its diversity of voices," Cecile Richards, president of the Planned Parenthood Action Fund told ABC News.com.
The platform change was the result of intricate negotiations during a period of months, involving both abortion supporters and opponents.
The section on abortion starts by saying that the party "strongly and unequivocally supports Roe v. Wade and a woman's right to choose," and says the party opposes "any and all efforts to weaken or undermine that right."
The new language then says: "The Democratic Party also strongly supports access to affordable family planning services and comprehensive age-appropriate sex education which empowers people to make informed choices and live healthy lives.
"We also recognize that such health care and education help reduce the number of unintended pregnancies and thereby also reduce the need for abortions," the platform continues.
"The Democratic Party also strongly supports a woman's decision to have a child by ensuring access to and availability of programs for pre- and postnatal health care, parenting skills, income support, and caring adoption programs.
"The Democratic Party strongly and unequivocally supports Roe v. Wade and a woman's right to choose a safe and legal abortion, regardless of ability to pay, and we oppose any and all efforts to weaken or undermine that right.
"The Democratic Party also strongly supports access to affordable family planning services and comprehensive age-appropriate sex education which empowers people to make informed choices and live healthy lives. We also recognize that such health care and education help reduce the number of unintended pregnancies and thereby also reduce the need for abortions.
"The Democratic Party also strongly supports a woman's decision to have a child by ensuring access to and availability of programs for pre- and postnatal health care, parenting skills, income support, and caring adoption programs."
ABC News' Jennifer Parker and Arnab Datta contributed to this report.