First of all let me say that I intend for the title of this piece to be polemical. I hope it is not the case, in all circumstances, that pro-life organizations and major players in the movement, are unfairly excluding, or consciously undermining budding pro-life Democratic candidates and causes. But my own experience is worth sharing and considering- just in case.
When I was deciding to run for Florida State legislature back in 2005-2006, I thought that I could be a very effective new breed of pro-life leader. If I could become a successful pro-life Democrat candidate, I would be able to encourage imitators, and the Florida Democratic Party establishment would have to choose whether or not to risk an open split in their ranks on social issues, or develop a bigger tent on issues like abortion to become more neutral in their public positioning, and more supportive of pro-life Democratic candidates.
I saw an opportunity in the overall weakness of the local Democratic Party in Brevard County, Florida, in that I became the only Democratic challenger to a Republican incumbent in any state legislative race in the county. Beggars can’t be choosers, so the local Democratic establishment and activist base, became mildly supportive of my candidacy- despite the fact that I was not only pro-life, but also very consistent down the line with the entire Catholic social doctrine. This cuts both ways, of course, as hardened liberals and conservatives both like to pick and choose their way through the social teachings and counsel of the Church.
The Republican incumbent I chose to run against was entering his last race for the district due to term limits- he was completing his third term and four was the limit. I figured that even as a long-shot I would be in a good position for a run during the next cycle- given that the Republicans would have to field a new candidate, and even though my district was gerrymandered to favor Republicans, I would have some name recognition, and hopefully the Catholic and pro-life community support to a degree heretofore unheard of for a Democrat. I also figured that the pendulum was going to be swinging back to the Democrats after eight years of the unpopular Bush administration.
My predictions were accurate, but I was shocked at the lack of support I received from the Catholic and pro-life communities. I naively thought that I could contact the biggest pro-life organizations in the state and find open arms and tangible support for my mission to cultivate a solidly pro-life movement back into the Democratic Party. My first call to an executive member of the big Right to Life organization would prove to be a bad omen. The person I spoke with was unimpressed with my idea that the pro-life movement needed to get going with a two-party strategy, because the American people were not going to just sit in the Republican Party’s lap no matter what. The pendulum swings back and forth in American politics, and it is bad for the pro-life movement to put all their eggs in one basket. They will be taken for granted by the one party, and they will inspire only more hatred from the other party, when or if they get power. This was the theme of my communication, then and now, but the response from the pro-life leader then, was maddening. She seemed more interested in my position on Immigration than in what unique things I was proposing to promote a pro-life agenda. She was an apparently conservative Catholic who didn’t agree with the U.S. Bishops and their views on immigration policy- I was more on the side of the bishops- and this riled her. At one point I had to interrupt her and shout that my position on immigration should be beside the point- I was calling her organization because I wanted to make the case that on the Abortion issue I was proposing a much stronger position than my opponent- and I thought that that should warrant support from any organization claiming to be all about defending the lives of the unborn.
This was the start of a very frustrating campaign to try to gather in pro-life organizational and activist support. I ended up with no visible support from any organized sources. When I met with other pro-life group leaders, I was met with many who were Republican Executive Committee members who told me they could not publicly support me in any way- not even sign my candidate petition- because they had taken vows to never support a non-Republican candidate. When I contacted university pro-life clubs, I never even received back a courtesy email (Ditto for area Catholic parish pastors and parish coordinators for Life, and Catholic Women’s Clubs) .No one even wanted to see if there were legal means of assisting in the furthering of my campaign. No candidate forums, no meet and greet the candidates, nothing. I have since written an extensive recommendation on how to get Catholic parishes more involved in the political process- fully legal- and I will share this information another time.
Now, I know that many of you may be thinking that I was offering one of those watered-down Democrats for life type pro-life agendas’; Maybe not interested in criminalizing abortion, only seeking to find economic support for unwed mothers in the form of public assistance. The fact is that I proposed a very ambitious pro-life agenda that included much, much more than any other pro-life candidate that I am aware of. And the Republican candidate I ran against was considered “pro-life” but I didn’t see any legislation he put forth, I never saw him use the bully pulpit to promote a Life agenda, and in the few candidate forums we attended together, I was the only one to bring up the pro-life issue and identify myself as being “pro-life”.
I repeatedly contacted the main office of the main pro-life organization in Florida, and I told them that they should either back me or use my proposals to get the Republican candidate to match my promises, if he was going to continue to get their backing. I proposed that I would seek to overturn Roe v. Wade, by challenging that ruling on the basis of the 5th and 14th Amendments, drawing upon all the scientific evidence since Roe v. Wade that proves that human life begins at fertilization/conception. I also promised that I would put forth legislation to regulate fertility clinics to prevent the freezing and storing of “spare” human embryos- I argued back in 2006 that this was creating the supply for the embryonic stem cell demand- cut the supply and the American people would not tolerate the cloning of human embryos. I couldn’t believe that the pro-life movement wasn’t making a major push against the fertility clinics abuse of human embryos, by freezing them in perpetuity or destroying them- if we aren’t outraged by that, then how would people understand our opposition to the research and destruction of these discarded embryos?
I made these points over and over again to anyone I could find in the pro-life community leadership. I was ignored. I even put forth the idea that we should be regulating the alcohol advertisements for sporting events- particularly NCAA college events- because of the fact that these ads target young men in particular, and binge drinking at college, and out, leads to lots of bad behavior- not the least of which- sexual activity and unplanned pregnancies leading to many abortions. Sports used to be the domain of children; it appealed to our innocence- getting rid of alcohol promotion is one way to fight back in the culture wars.
My campaign in 2006 ended in a predictable failure- I received 40% of the vote, which was considered a strong showing, and a good start for my next campaign. When I attended the first town hall meeting of the Republican who beat me, I asked him about regulating fertility clinics, and he looked at me like he’d never heard of such a thing. It was obvious that the Life organization had made no attempt to have him upgrade his pro-life agenda. I could not even get the main Life organization to return my phone call asking what the criteria had been, to explain why I did not earn the endorsement or support for my candidacy from the organization. I spoke with someone at the office level who shared my disbelief over the way I was being treated, but it was obvious what was going on. I was a Democrat, I was pushing against the grain and group think of mainstream pro-life organizations.
I decided to start my new race early for 2008- people were predicting that this was going to be the year of the Democratic return to power, and I was very well-positioned for a second run. This time I had time to gather petition signatures to get on the ballot, and not have to raise the $2000 alternative fee, just to get my name into consideration. The problems developed immediately. The Democratic activists smelled Republican blood this time around, and they sure didn’t want a social conservative like me to be representing the new wave of Democratic leadership. I had hopes that the Catholic community and the Pro-life groups would now come to their senses and at least help me to get on the ballot. Oh no, not again!
The main Pro-life organization had improved quite a lot from the last go-round, there was new blood in leadership roles, and they were verbally much more communicative. There was no tangible assistance however, and the pro-life community did not produce a single petition gatherer for me. My wife had given birth in the meantime, and my home life was a much busier place with 3 children now. I needed some serious help- not money mind you- just help in gathering some 850 petitions to get my name of the ballot. It just didn’t happen- and I still don’t get it. I ended up getting nearly 1000 petitions with the help of very few- a retired pro-choice Democrat, a former student, a few assists here and there- but most of the leg work was my own. I was pretty much abandoned by the Catholic community, the pro-life community. As it turned out, the 1000 petitions didn’t all get through at the Board of Elections- because of the gerrymandering a lot of folks signed, thinking they were in my district, but they weren’t. So I didn’t get on the ballot. The new Republican candidate ran unopposed. After the “election” I talked to him about regulating fertility clinics, he didn’t seem to know what I was talking about- and so the pro-life movement goes- these are your pro-life representatives.
I don’t know how I could have represented a more complete pro-life agenda. I am a pro-life maximalist; I go in for plans like the Pregnant Women’s Support Act which address significant root causes for the abortion choice- according to the research. And I go for outlawing abortion at the federal level based on a determination that life begins at conception. I believe that fertility clinics should not be creating human embryos which are not going to be implanted inside their mother’s womb- even though I see In-Vitro as inherently wrong; I think the first step is holding all fertility clinics accountable for every human embryo. I tried to convince the pro-life establishment leaders that I would have made a very effective public witness for the pro-life cause. I am a teacher, I communicate with high school teens every day. I was willing to challenge the underlying assumptions of our culture regarding sexuality and responsibility. I was not a partisan hack, and I wasn’t in the pocket of big special monied-interests. But still it was not enough for the forces that be in the pro-life movement- local, state, or national.
It is my observation from personal experience that the pro-life movement is way too cozy with the Republican Party. This has led to a softening of the movement, where it seems that lip service and a few legislative pro-life set asides, are sufficient to earning the full-fledged support of the movement leadership. Personally, I don’t even consider the national Republican legal strategy to have abortion simply sent back to a state’s rights issue, as truly and fully pro-life. There is a natural law obligation to settle this right to life at the highest levels of our governing authority.
I am suspicious of many who loudly claim that they are prioritizing the abortion issue as the single-issue that cannot be placed to the side, or calculated in some kind of proportionality debate. When I offered myself as a truly believing and vigorous pro-life candidate, I was not met with open arms by many who identified themselves as big pro-lifers. The reason I suspect is that I am a Democrat in the model of FDR- as was Ronald Reagan by the way. Many pro-lifers talk a good talk, and they love having easy Democratic Party targets that are pro-legal abortion. But when a genuine pro-life Democrat steps forward, many of these folks seem to get very uneasy. It would seem that their views on government, taxation, war and immigration, are a whole lot more important to their actual vote than they openly claim. Having the Democratic Party as the Party of Death is very convenient for pro-life, conservative ideologues, and they may be part of a self-fulfilling prophesy if they ignore or mock legitimate pro-life Democratic candidates and legislative initiatives.
In concluding, as a pro-life Democrat and former candidate, I did not feel that there was a meritocracy operating in the aspects of the pro-life movement which I encountered- and I made a lot of overtures to many, many official pro-life organizations. I stand by my view that the cause of the unborn will ultimately depend on a broad Two (at least) Party strategy. The Democratic Party was once the Party most aligned with the pro-life movement- see Kristen Day’s book- Democrats for Life. There is no reason that we cannot take back the Party for Life with the help of all the minorities who traditionally vote Democratic, but who are very religious and pro-life at heart. We simply need to get to work organizing in these communities- not to try to make them into Republicans, but to empower them to reform the Democratic Party for Life. We need pro-life Obama-like candidates to compete for the hearts and minds of the next generation. I am hoping to use my position as Vice President of Florida Democrats for Life organization, to get my foot in the door at churches and pro-life organization meetings, to push for this new wave to hit within my Party. My thesis is that Republican pro-lifers seem afraid of the competition, they have not shown openness to cooperation with Democratic pro-lifers, and they use their positions of leadership within the pro-life community to frustrate potential pro-life leaders who do not share their affection for the Republican agenda beyond the Life front. There should be board positions awarded to Democrats who hold strong pro-life credentials, and who should be part of the decision-making process for the organized pro-life movement. I await evidence that this is happening. I pray it will. God Bless. Tim Shipe (timshipe.com)