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Progressives issue ‘statement of principles’ on abortion rights after Democratic leaders hint at softer stance

Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL, in 2015. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

A coalition of pro-abortion-rights and progressive groups is uniting behind a “statement of principles” to push back against Democratic leaders who say they would welcome antiabortion candidates in 2018. It’s the latest response to an issue that has repeatedly sparked infighting among progressives since the start of the year, with a new round of recriminations after Rep. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.), chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said there was “no litmus test” to run as a Democrat.

“The media has been framing this as a split between Democrats, and that’s not what it is,” said Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL, a pro-abortion-rights organization. “Among the rank-and-file groups that make up the majority of the Democratic base, there is really no split on abortion rights.”

But the very existence of the statement has rankled some Democrats who’ve seen a sort of “Groundhog Day” debacle unfold over abortion rights — similar stories in April, May and then July in which Democratic leaders put up a big tent for people who are antiabortion, only to be blown back by abortion rights groups.

“As long as Republicans control Congress and the White House, a woman’s health care, her right to choose and her economic security are constantly at risk, and Democrats must continue to fight back every day,” said DCCC Communications Director Meredith Kelly. “The DCCC is working hard to take back the House so that Democrats can legislate on the values that our party has long held dear. Right now, that means finding candidates who are authentic and represent the values of the party, while fitting a wide variety of districts and connecting with those voters. Primary voters and local groups will ask candidates where they stand on the issues and select their nominees.”

The Lujan flare-up, which began with an interview in the Hill, produced headlines such as “Howard Dean to withhold support if DCCC funds candidates opposed to abortion rights,” “Of Course Abortion Should Be a Litmus Test for Democrats” and “People Are Really Mad at the DCCC for Saying It Will Continue to Fund Pro-Life Candidates.”

Similar stories appeared after Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) campaigned for Heath Mello, a candidate for mayor of Omaha who had co-sponsored antiabortion bills; more appeared after House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told The Washington Post that not every Democrat needed to “toe the line” on abortion. According to Hogue, each instance accentuated the need for Democrats to reframe the abortion question instead of apologizing for the party’s platform.

“If they had given it more thought, they wouldn’t be tripping up rhetorically,” Hogue said. “If they’d put in due diligence on the issue, there’d be an easy answer.

The coalition’s principles align closely with current Democratic Party positions. “We know we cannot have a real conversation about economic security that does not include the ability to decide if, when, and how to raise a family,” the abortion rights coalition writes. “We recognize that over the last decade there has been a massive erosion of access to abortion and attacks on contraception and we cannot back away from this fight without abandoning people and undercutting core constituencies in our base.”

Those sentiments were endorsed and hammered out by NARAL and Democracy for America; they’re endorsed as well by, the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, Emily’s List, the Working Families Party, Ultraviolet, Demos, the American Federation of Teachers, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, the Indivisible Project, Social Security Works and Daily Kos, a blog that unendorsed Mello after learning of his abortion record.

In 2016, Democrats amended their platform to endorse more abortion rights positions than ever. For the first time, the party went on record against the Hyde Amendment, which Republicans and antiabortion Democrats pass every year to bar federal funding for abortion. But according to the only polling on the “litmus test,” few Democrats say they’re interested in a fight over whether individual candidates can hold antiabortion views. In a May poll conducted by YouGov, just 28 percent of Democrats said the party should back only candidates who support abortion rights.

Some Democrats, Hogue said, might be personally antiabortion without contravening the Democrats’ positions on legal abortion.

“Data shows that lots of people who identify as pro-life believe in legal access to abortion,” Hogue said. “You have people like Mario Cuomo who were staunchly pro-life but never voted that way — and who could speak eloquently about why. Sen. Bob Casey [a Pennsylvania Democrat] seems like a nice guy, but he’s winning elections in spite of his pro-life views, not because of them. Voters really respond well to people saying to them, ‘Look, we disagree, but here’s why I hold this position.’ ”

The principles are reprinted below.

As progressives, we know we cannot have a real conversation about economic security that does not include the ability to decide if, when, and how to raise a family; that being able to plan a pregnancy has a powerful effect on educational attainment, career trajectory, and chance to define our own destinies.
As progressives, we stand united in understanding that policies that limit access to abortion and force medically unnecessary procedures are oppressive to women, especially low-income women and women of color.
As progressives, we stand united in the belief that a woman’s autonomy over her own body is not a secondary issue or a “social issue,” but rather a human right and a necessity in order to attain and preserve economic security in her life.
As progressives, we acknowledge that the current economic system is exceptionally punishing of mothers, single mothers, and mothers of color whose wages, job opportunities, and economic advancement suffer due to the “motherhood penalty.”
As progressives, we stand united in our belief that 21st century economic populism must include an understanding of how race and gender affect our economic reality and our economic opportunity.
As a progressive movement, we recognize that over the last decade there has been a massive erosion of access to abortion and attacks on contraception and we cannot back away from this fight without abandoning people and undercutting core constituencies in our base.
As we always have, progressives share our party with people who personally don’t believe that abortion is an option for them. This includes self-identified “pro-life” legislators up until the moment they seek to impose those personal views on their constituents and the country. If they vote to restrict abortion access or contraception access, they then undercut the party platform and they undercut the welfare of women. We strive for and believe in personal evolution and growth so, if they have voted to do so in the past, the burden of proof is upon them through subsequent votes and/or public statements — not in the heat of a campaign — but prior to running for office or reelection.
Thus, as progressives, we know to organize, mobilize, and win elections we must field candidates who understand the integral nature of these core values and bring the full power of our collective base to win.