May 2004
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Day May 16, 2004

Abortion and Tolerance of Dissenting Opinions within the Democratic Party

Amy Sullivan wrote a guest entry last Friday on the Washington Monthly’s Political Animal, arguing that Democrats need to acknowledge the spectrum of opinion among Democrats on the issue of abortion. Personally, I am firmly of the opinion that reproductive rights are unenumerated “privileges or immunities” of the sort that the Fourteenth Amendment protects (even in a strict textualist reading, without “judicial activism”) (1).

Recent experience at my legislative district caucus nevertheless underscored Sullivan’s point. While voting on the platform, several individuals spoke out against the platform’s plank on abortion, which read: “We reaffirm our support of every woman’s right of reproductive choice.” Those who spoke were obviously speaking from a deep moral and religious belief.

And the caucus, more than a thousand people, shouted down the speakers with boos and hisses. It was a disgusting display. We Democrats think of ourselves as a party of tolerance, of respect for individual rights, of respect for diversity. Yet we cannot tolerate a spectrum of beliefs on platform issues?

At a pragmatic level, how can we hope to attract and maintain the loyalty of a majority of voters, if we define ourselves in narrowly ideological terms? (2)

At a moral and philosophical level, if we promote a platform which includes tolerance and respect for diversity, but are intolerant of diversity within our own ranks, are we really living up to our own rhetoric?

Democrats, including (and especially) our candidates, need to acknowledge the fact that we are in a time of cultural transition and change. Some of the issues on the table today are genuinely disturbing to many people. And we need to respect that diversity of opinion, at the same time that we push a program of respect for civil and individual liberties. Not doing so is simply hypocrisy.

Normally, candidates get around issues like this by claiming cautious support for compromise positions which signal a little ground to both sides. They end up sounding wishy-washy, and possibly are. I’d personally find it quite refreshing to hear a Democrat say:

“Abortion is one of the most important and divisive issues in our society, pitting us against each other in terms that are simplified into ‘good’ versus ‘evil’. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Within the Democratic party, we pursue civil and individual rights for everyone, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, or national origin. Regardless of whether the right in question is controversial or not. We respect and tolerate different points of view, and that has to include controversial issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage. We’re going to defend the individual’s right to pursue their own solution to these controversial issues, unimpeded by governmental controls, because that is the core value of the Democratic party. Not everyone will choose to exercise their rights the same way. Some will choose to reject the possibility of abortion, based upon their beliefs. Some will choose to embrace a woman’s right to choose for herself. Both will be exercising their rights as citizens. This is the essence of a free and open society.”

The reality, of course, is that we won’t hear a candidate say this unless it’s clear that the population will elect a candidate who makes such a statement. Candidates quite naturally gravitate towards positions that are electable. It’s up to us, the electorate, to show candidates that an honest defense of tolerance is a winning position.


(1) I understand that abortion is currently protected via “substantive due process” under the Fourteenth Amendment (in Roe v. Wade), rather than the “privileges and immunities” clause, but I believe that substantive due process continues to be stretched out of proportion by the reluctance of the Court to rehabilitate the “privileges and immunities” clause by explicitly rejecting the effects of the Slaughterhouse cases. Many “individual liberties” are probably better protected, from a textual point of view, by labeling them “privileges” or “immunities” which are not within the scope of governmental control.

(2) Cass Sunstein has an excellent analysis of why group consensus opinions frequently end up more “extreme” than a strict average of individual opinions would suggest. The first chapter of Designing Democracy: What Constitutions Do (Oxford Univ. Press, 2001) is highly relevant to this issue.