How to Talk to Democrats About Abortion: Five Strategies For Making the Pro-Life Case

“Many people discount the power of the so-called ‘cultural issues’ – and especially the abortion issue. I see it the other way around. These issues are central to the resurgence of the Republicans, central to the national implosion of the Democrats, central to the question of whether there will be a third party… [The] Democrats’ national decline—or, better, their national disintegration—will continue relentlessly and inexorably until they come to grips with these values issues, primarily abortion.”

-Gov. Robert P. Casey, Fighting for Life (1996)

In the 1970s, when about 40 percent of Democratic congressmen were pro-life, the party had a seemingly insurmountable hold on the House of Representatives. Now, less than 15 percent are pro-life, and they’re in an ever-shrinking House minority. Meanwhile, the big Democratic success stories in 2004 were the new representatives in Iowa, Missouri, and Michigan, as well as new Democratic governors in West Virginia and Louisiana. All of these victories were won by pro-life Democrats.

Some in the Democratic Party read the signs correctly; otherwise, they never could have elected a social moderate like Harry Reid (D-Nevada) as Senate minority leader. But many Democrats are not just pragmatic, wanting victory at any cost. Most Democrats I’ve spoken with seem to feel that maintaining legal abortion is actually the most compassionate course for a government to take, given the number of women facing crisis pregnancies. For them, criminalizing abortion is both sexist and heartless.

Many pro-lifers feel that arguing with such people is hopeless, especially when dealing with a liberal Democratic audience that has already made up its mind about abortion. And yet we’re still called to evangelize. How, then, can we engage pro-choice Democrats in fruitful conversation? (Since Democrats prefer the term “pro-choice,” I will use it in this article.)

First—and most obvious—is prayer. When Jesus calls us to pray for our enemies, we’re to pray for mercy, forgiveness, and conversion. The more authentically we pray, the more love and compassion we feel for those with whom we fight in this culture war.

Beyond prayer, the key to any discussion is to locate the common ground you share with your conversation partner and work from there. This common ground need not involve abortion, at least initially. Finding one area where you agree with your interlocutor—such as the war in Iraq, tax cuts, or the death penalty—creates an openness to hearing your argument. Additionally, it precludes the possibility of his tuning you out solely on the basis of your membership in a certain political party.

Finally, it’s important to lower your initial expectations. Due to the high emotions involved with the abortion debate, you may convince a person on an interior level and find that he nevertheless rejects your position outwardly. Your pressing for a concession early on may actually drive him away, making it that much harder to convince him down the road.

A far better tack is to make some concession on your side first—such as rejecting anti-abortion violence, or promoting increased funding for women’s health—making the other person more likely to consider you “reasonable.” Your having made a concession also helps him lower his own guard and gives him permission to admit to a change in his own attitude.

Strategy No. 1: Oppose Violence Against Women

Abortion was first aggregated to the Democratic Party in the late 1960s and early 1970s when feminists, following up on the civil rights movement, advocated it as part of women’s liberation. Unfortunately, the results have been anything but good for women.

According to the Journal of the American Medical Association, the leading cause of death for pregnant women in the United States is murder. The most frequent murderer of a pregnant woman is the father of her child. Connected to this startling statistic, we see that in post-abortive interviews, between 30 percent and 60 percent of abortions are described by the abortive mother as “coerced,” most often by parents or, again, the child’s father.

By legalizing abortion, our country has created an instant escape hatch for irresponsible males who aren’t willing to accept the consequences of their actions and who pressure women into unwanted abortions. We have formed an expectation among males that if a “mistake” comes along, the woman has an obligation to “fix it.” And they’re often all too willing to enforce this decision with violence: In 2004, the Washington Post reported that an estimated 295 pregnant women are murdered per year, with another 4 to 8 percent of pregnant women suffering physical violence at the hands of their husbands, boyfriends, or partners. While exact numbers are hard to obtain, it’s probable that several thousand non-surgical abortions per year are performed by male partners who simply beat the abdomens of women until miscarriage occurs. This not only kills the child, it leaves the bereaved mother without the ability to prosecute the murderer (in most states, depending on the gestational age of the child) for any crime beyond simple assault and battery. The connection between abortion and domestic violence is unmistakable.

Threats and intimidation from male partners, as well as from parents, often play a role in a woman’s choice to abort. In fact, according to a statistic in David C. Reardon’s Aborted Women: Silent No More (Acorn Books, 2002), 80 percent of post-abortive women say that if they had received support instead of intimidation from their loved ones, they would have preferred to keep the baby. As it was, they felt that they had no choice but to abort.

Clearly, these statistics should be abhorrent to anyone on any side of the debate. Simply sharing the facts above often produces a startling effect. But this cannot be used merely as a bludgeon, it needs to be part of an overall pattern of authentic concern for the mother facing a surprise pregnancy. It might also be helpful to become familiar with the work of the crisis pregnancy centers in your area, especially those that provide shelter for threatened mothers.

Pro-life feminists Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton feared that women would be exploited and abused if abortion were to become legalized, and their predictions were proven correct. No solutions to the problem of intimidation and violence against pregnant women can be achieved without the dual solutions of removing the availability of abortion and taking additional steps to protect threatened women.

Strategy No. 2: Support Women Facing Crisis Pregnancies

Sympathy for the woman facing a crisis pregnancy needs to come in two ways. First, we must be compassionate and express solidarity with those who feel forced into an abortion. Post-abortive women, as well as their family and friends, are often extremely defensive. What they need is sympathy for their crisis, not judgment. Part of this involves avoiding inflammatory language. While it’s absolutely true that abortion is no less than the killing of a baby, the post-abortive woman hears only judgment in that line of argument. Her mind will immediately close, and your chance to make a convincing case is gone.

Secondly, it’s important to acknowledge that simply overturning abortion laws will not end the abortion crisis. Even if Roe v. Wade were reversed, abortion would still be legal in most of the United States (as such a decision would merely leave the question up to individual states). And even if abortion were made illegal on the state level, many abortions would continue on the black market.

We need a system in which no woman feels there’s a need for abortion. In other words, we need to admit that the U.S. government isn’t yet doing what it should to establish justice and promote the general welfare when it comes to pregnant women. While volunteer groups have bravely filled an important void in crisis pregnancy centers, the government should step up to the plate where volunteerism is overwhelmed.

What Democrats will recognize as “sympathy” for the pregnant woman is government intervention. Though Republicans are generally suspicious of big government programs, this may be a time to make some exceptions—for example, support for a government subsidy of pre- and post-natal care for low-income and under-insured women, or a child-care tax credit (or stay-at-home parent tax credit). The question of coerced abortions could be addressed from a legal standpoint, perhaps by requiring clinics to screen for coercion or including coercion-to-abort clauses within domestic violence provisions. In some cases, even such a thing as raising the minimum wage becomes pro-life, in that it might encourage low-income families to feel more secure in their ability to care for a child. Simply by addressing the “demand” side of the equation, it’s conceivable that certain pieces of legislation could reduce abortion without directly referring to the practice itself.

Strategy No. 3: Explain the Harmful Health Effects of Abortion

Democrats have always been on the forefront of issues related to women’s health, but they’ve tragically grouped abortion under this umbrella issue, alleging discrimination against women when this “health” concern is not adequately addressed. However, abortion represents a grave threat to women’s health.

New findings from a study in Finland show that abortion is more physically dangerous than previously believed— substantially more dangerous than childbirth. (Finland is an excellent choice for such a study because its government provides socialized medical care with centralized records.) A 2004 article in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology relates how researchers from Finland’s National Research and Development Center for Welfare and Health looked at the death certificate records from 1987 to 2000 for all women ages 15 to 49 (i.e., of reproductive age). Their findings show that post-abortive women are 3.5 times more likely to die within twelve months after abortion than women after childbirth within the same period. In addition, abortion is a risk factor for future miscarriages and premature births, as well as for breast cancer.

Democrats also recognize that a person’s body doesn’t give the whole picture of a person’s health; the person’s mental state must be considered, too. But abortion, which is sometimes promoted as reducing women’s stress, actually leads to increased rates of depression, alcoholism, drug abuse, and even psychiatric hospitalization (well-documented in the Journal of the Canadian Medical Association, the Clinical Psychological Review, and other peer-reviewed journals). In fact, according to the British Medical Journal, women who procured an abortion had an almost 500 percent greater suicide risk than women who had given birth—as measured within the twelve months following either the abortion or the birth.

When all of this information is taken together, the pro- life position can be shown for what it really is: far more pro-woman than the pro-choice position. (For more information about the harmful effects of abortion on women’s health, see “How Abortion Hurts Women: The Hard Proof” by Erika Bachiochi in the June 2005 issue of Crisis.)

Strategy No. 4: Emphasize the Inherent Discrimination of Abortion

Democrats were historically the party of the underdog. What Democrats need to see is that abortion is actually another form of discrimination against the weakest members of our society: unborn children.

The right to life is the fundamental human right, without which all others are meaningless. How will we practice the right to free speech, the right to follow any religion (or no religion), the right to assemble, the right to pursue happiness, if we don’t first have the right to live? All other rights are secondary to and dependent upon the right to life.

There’s also a strong parallel between abortion and slavery. The Supreme Court declared both slavery and abortion to be constitutional. Slavery denied the personhood of the African American; abortion denies the personhood of the extremely young. The defense of slavery rested on a person’s right to do what he wants with his own “property,” while the defense of abortion rests on a woman’s right to do what she wants with her own body. The unsettling implications of that parallel are hard to ignore.

A final piece of evidence comes from the history of the pro-choice movement itself. Abortion in the United States was promoted partially to control the growth of socially undesirable people. PBS’s American Experience quotes Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger as saying, “Birth control is nothing more or less than the facilitation of the process of weeding out the unfit [and] of preventing the birth of defectives.” Even today, Planned Parenthood’s clinics are most common in inner cities. Thirty-five percent of all abortions are performed on black women, even though African Americans comprise only 12 percent of the United States’ population. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, more African Americans’ lives have been ended by abortion since 1973 than by AIDS, cancer, heart disease, accidents, and murder combined.

Strategy No. 5: Discuss the Science of Fetal Development

When it comes to scientific advances in the field of fetal development over the last 30 years, some pro-choice advocates are simply misinformed. Pro-choice groups like Planned Parenthood, NARAL, and NOW like to claim that the fetus is simply extra tissue in the woman’s body that can be disposed of easily. However, any medical textbook on fetal development shows clearly that the fetus is obviously a distinct person from the mother:

  •  The fetus has unique DNA, different from the mother’s, at the moment of conception.
  •  The fetus has a heartbeat 18 days after conception, which is usually before the woman even knows she’s pregnant.
  •  The fetus often has a different blood type than the mother.
  •  The fetus has measurable brain activity less than 45 days after conception, well before most abortions in America take place.

Published material on fetal development that’s neither politically nor religiously affiliated can be very useful educational tools, as are images from the new 3-D sonograms.

Democrats usually favor government involvement in scientific advances. Remind them that Democrats proposed our mission to the moon more than four decades ago, advocated for alternative energy sources, realized the importance of mental health to a person’s overall well-being, and tried to repair the damage we’ve done to our environment. Now it’s time for the Democratic Party to accept the science behind human development.

If a Democrat tries to argue (as I once did) that human personhood begins when brain waves exist, another helpful argument is the existence of anencephalic babies—that is, children born without a brain who usually live outside of the womb for only a few hours. It’s hard to argue that a nine-month-old baby with such a birth defect isn’t a person. Point out that humans in a persistent vegetative state are still “persons” deserving of certain civil rights and governmental protection. The existence of brain waves isn’t useful as a measuring stick for personhood.

Democrats for Life

It’s necessary to drive home the point that being pro-life doesn’t mean being Republican. Acknowledging the universal right to life can and should be distinct from any personal political preference. If you feel that your words have had an effect, encourage them to check out www.democrats, a national organization for pro-life Democrats. Several U.S. representatives and a handful of senators and governors are pro-life Democrats, and some are considering a run for the presidency in 2008. Remind them that John Kerry lost the election on the “moral values” issue and that changing the Democratic Party into the party of life is a move that wins votes in crucial red states. Democrats Kerry, Howard Dean, and even Hillary Clinton have at least given lip service to the idea of welcoming pro-life Democrats and reducing abortions, a remarkable change from the cultural climate of just one year ago.

Most of all, stress that the Democratic Party has considered itself the party that speaks for and protects those who cannot protect themselves, the voice for the voiceless. The unborn are the ultimate example of the powerless. It’s time for more Democrats to speak up.


  • Eric Pavlat

    Eric Pavlat is a convert from Unitarian Universalism who entered the Church in 1996. He lives in Maryland with his wife and six children. He is also a perpetually professed Lay Dominican in St. Pius V Pro-Chapter, located in Catonsville, MD. He founded Democrats for Life of Maryland, Inc., in 2004, served one term as president, and stayed on the board of directors until 2010. He now considers himself more a Distributist than anything else. Eric teaches 10th grade honors and special education students in English literature, composition, and grammar at his alma mater, Parkdale High School.

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