Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Democrats Move Left

Wall Street Journal


Move Left
On Abortion
August 20, 2008; Page A19

Lake Forest, Calif.

"Above my pay grade." Those words rang in the ears of Gene Taylor, a middle-age member of Saddleback Church I interviewed after the worship service on Sunday morning. He was referring to the answer offered by Barack Obama when Pastor Rick Warren asked him at what point in its development a baby gets "human rights."

"In this country," Mr. Taylor told me, "there is no higher pay grade than the president." Which is true at least metaphorically. Mr. Taylor added, "I thought I was going to be supporting John McCain. Now I'm sure of it."

Mr. Obama's flip-sounding response did not go over well with the evangelicals in the audience of Saturday night's presidential forum. After a week in which the Democrats have been renegotiating their abortion platform, Mr. Obama was supposed to provide a voice of clarity, and above all moderation, for the party. His middle-of-the-road views were supposed to appeal to independent-minded Catholics and evangelicals who agreed with Democrats on some issues, but couldn't pull the lever for him if he was too radical on abortion.

It didn't work out that way. Add Mr. Obama's recent admission that during his time in the Illinois legislature he voted against a law protecting babies who survive an abortion procedure, and it seems as if the Democrats have accomplished the impossible: They have moved to the left on abortion.

On the party's platform, the Democrats dropped the words "safe, legal and rare," the phrase used most famously by both Bill and Hillary Clinton to signal moderation on the issue. The Democrats also added the modifier "unequivocally" to strengthen their support for abortion rights. As if there were any doubt about the message that these changes send to the party's radical factions, here is feminist Linda Hirshman celebrating in a piece for Slate: "With the release of the new platform, the emancipation of women may once again become a legitimate political position."

Some conservative Democrats and a few leaders on the religious left have cited other shifts, such as the inclusion of access to "family planning services" and "age-appropriate sex education" in the platform, as evidence that the party is softening its stance. But phrases like "sex education" and "family planning," especially when uttered by government officials, rarely warm the hearts of conservative, religious Americans.

To be sure, not all Christians are alarmed. The platform says that the party "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." According to Rev. Jim Wallis, the founder of Sojourners (a network of liberal Christians), this is evidence that "there's a common ground possible here." He said, in a conference call of religious leaders last week, "It's never been as explicitly stated that the Democratic Party supports a woman's decision to have their child, and offers her practical support to have her child. It's an historic step forward." But no one should mistake Rev. Wallis's views for those of most Catholics or the evangelical community.

If Democrats had wanted to "make room" for pro-lifers, they could have. One proposal for the platform was a statement of "conscience" -- that is, language noting that people of good conscience can disagree on abortion. This was rejected by the platform writers.

What did Mr. Obama add to this mix? On Saturday, he may have tugged at the heartstrings of some in the audience with his statement that women don't make the decision to abort "casually," that they "wrestle" with it.

But, as with many other issues, the Democrats have framed this as an issue in which poverty and other factors beyond people's control have forced them into making questionable decisions. If only they had more money and universal health care, the logic goes, things might be different.

This patronizing argument really won't fly with evangelicals. Not only are they on the front lines of providing adoption services across the country, but they are also big believers in personal responsibility. Polls show that young evangelicals are growing more adamantly opposed to abortion while they are growing more tolerant of gay marriage. One reason for this is the idea (true or false) that people may not be able to help being gay. Whether to have an abortion, the young evangelicals I've spoken with seem quite sure, is a still an individual's decision.

Next week, Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey Jr. will be giving a speech at the convention in Denver. Mr. Casey, whose father, a former governor of Pennsylvania, was not allowed to address the 1992 Democratic convention because of his pro-life views, is now carrying on his shoulders the last hopes that the Democrats can take a reasonable position on the issue of abortion. But after what his party has communicated this week, it's hard to see why Mr. Casey would bother.

Ms. Riley is the Journal's deputy Taste editor and the author of "God on the Quad: How Religious Colleges and the Missionary Generation are Changing America" (Ivan R. Dee, 2006).

See all of today's editorials and op-eds, plus video commentary, on Opinion Journal.

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