Kristen Day has just sent an email thanking a Democratic state representative in Michigan for supporting a bill banning abortion funding in Obamacare. He’s grateful for her note—she’s only the second person to thank him. “It’s a really lonely road, to be a pro-life Democrat,” she remarks.
It’s lonelier than ever in 2014. Day is the president of Democrats for Life of America (DFLA). Her organization once had around 50 elected officials on Capitol Hill, but now has only 7. She used to work closely with pro-life powerhouses like the National Right to Life Committee and the Susan B. Anthony List, but “I was kind of kicked out of the pro-life movement,” she says with a wry laugh. In fact, she’s involved in the story behind an SBA List lawsuit that heads to the Supreme Court this week.
How thankless is Day’s job? Her party’s platform “strongly and unequivocally supports Roe v. Wade,” and party leaders are not interested in dissenting views. “There are some Democrats who would rather be in the minority than have pro-life Democrats in the party,” she admits. “They have come right out and said it.”
It wasn’t always this way. In 1977, Democrats had a 292-seat majority in the House, and 43 percent of them consistently voted pro-life. Day’s book, Democrats for Life: Pro-Life Politics and the Silenced Majority, details how the party eventually became dominated by pro-abortion advocates. She says it comes down to the massive funding of pro-abortion groups like Planned Parenthood and NARAL. In the primary for Maine’s 2nd Congressional District, for example, DFLA is backing a pro-life candidate, Troy Jackson. But running against him is Emily Cain, a candidate on EMILY’s List, a powerful pro-abortion election machine. “They’re throwing tons of money into the campaign,” says Day, adding that Cain “probably won’t win that district if she wins the primary. But Troy Jackson would probably win.” The district’s incumbent, Mike Michaud, originally won the seat as a pro-life Democrat, although his views have since “evolved.” What Democrats don’t realize, she says, is that they need pro-lifers to win back the House.
Day grew up in a Republican home, where opposing abortion was a given. In 1988, while at Michigan State University, and somewhat to her father’s dismay, she got involved with the College Democrats. After graduation, she headed to Capitol Hill to work for Bill Ford, a Michigan congressman at the time. “When you get involved in Democratic politics, that’s what they tell you—you support a woman’s right to choose.” But Day could never quite forget her pro-life roots.
In 1995 she began working for Rep. Jim Barcia, again from Michigan, an anti-abortion Democrat. His other staffers avoided the issue, so Day happily volunteered to take it on. She felt she had finally found her place in the party. As Day tells it, there are more pro-life Democrats on Capitol Hill than most people suspect. They’re simply too scared to vote their consciences. And, a crucial point for Day and DFLA: There are districts in states like West Virginia and Louisiana where Democrats cannot win without a pro-life candidate.
Barcia became the co-chair of the pro-life caucus, along with Republican Chris Smith of New Jersey. Eventually his chief of staff, Day set up a whip operation to advocate for anti-abortion legislation with sympathetic Democrats.
By 2002, pregnant with her first child and looking for a respite from her 80-hour work week, Day became executive director for DFLA. For 10 years, she worked alongside other pro-life groups and regularly attended all the big pro-life meetings—often as a nursing mom, with her small children in tow.
Obamacare would change all of that. Pro-life Democrat Bart Stupak proposed an amendment in the House to forbid taxpayer funding of abortion. Pro-life groups pushed hard, urging their Democratic allies to refuse to vote for Obamacare without the Stupak amendment. At one point, around 60 Democrats supported the amendment. But two weeks before the vote, they changed their minds. Instead of the amendment, 20 Democratic congressmen accepted an executive order from the president promising there would be no taxpayer funding of abortion. With Day’s support, the representatives voted for Obamacare without the Stupak amendment.
To other pro-lifers, this was a betrayal of their agreement: An executive order does not have the legal force to actually prohibit taxpayer-funded abortions.
In the 2010 midterms, the pro-life groups struck back. They targeted the Democrats who had turned on them. Stupak and a few others retired, but most of the 20 who had changed their minds on the amendment were voted out of office.
In Cincinnati, the SBA List bought a billboard attacking Rep. Steve Driehaus, one of those 20. It read, “Shame on Steve Driehaus! Driehaus voted FOR taxpayer-funded abortion.” Driehaus filed a complaint with the Ohio Election Commission, arguing the billboard violated a state law against making false claims about a candidate. Kristen Day and DFLA filed an affidavit in his support, stating Obamacare does not fund abortions. The ACLU intervened on the SBA List’s behalf, and a four-year legal battle was born.
Driehaus lost the election, and sued the SBA List for defamation and loss of livelihood. A judge ruled against him. Meanwhile the SBA List filed a suit against Ohio’s “False Statement Law,” arguing it violates the First Amendment. Their case was dismissed. The SBA List appealed, and now awaits a hearing from the Supreme Court this week.
Day paints this all as evidence that the pro-life movement is too partisan, and only concerned with electing Republicans. The SBA List will spend around $10 million this year on elections alone. Most of this will go to Republican candidates, although not all—Democrat Dan Lipinski of Illinois was one of their top recipients in 2013. Still, Day complains that they “hide” behind bipartisan labels, whereas her organization is upfront about what they are: a Democratic organization. “The pro-life Democrats who cast these votes are not making any friends within the party,” she says. “To have the pro-life community not support them either, I mean, these men and women who are casting these votes, they’re committed to this cause . . . they’re not doing it for any financial gain, any political gain.”
The pro-life movement has no regrets on pushing the Democrats who deserted Stupak out of office. “They had to be defeated,” says Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the SBA List. “They were the linchpin, the final votes, the last holdouts. I was their advocate, I worked for them, I grieve this loss.” For the SBA List and other pro-life groups, Obamacare opened the door to taxpayer funding of abortions, and a betrayal on this issue was too serious to overlook.
Dannenfelser rejects Day’s claims that pro-life groups are partisan. She says there should be a strong, specifically Democratic pro-life organization. But she doesn’t think DFLA is it. “There’s nowhere else to go other than Kristen and the Democrats for Life, and that’s sad. It’s not a dynamic, disciplined, visionary organization.”
About 2010, Day says, “It was a bad time.” After the vote on Obamacare, a quarterly meeting for the pro-life organizations came up, a meeting she had attended every year with her children. The SBA List withdrew her invitation from the meeting. “Having people not talking to me any more, it was very difficult. But as an organization it did make us look at, well, who are our friends? Obviously it wasn’t them, if we have a disagreement on one issue and they’re so quick to say ‘we don’t want to have anything to do with you anymore.’ ”
Day shifted focus back to work within her own party. She says she’s happier now. “People never trusted me. . . . I actually feel more welcome in the Democratic party than I do in the pro-life movement.”
These days DFLA focuses on electing state representatives who oppose abortion, hoping that eventually they can change the party from the bottom up. Day has spent the past few years working with the Democratic National Committee and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee to identify pro-life state representatives—she now has over 100 state members. This election cycle DFLA is backing eight candidates. They’ve also filed a case against Obamacare’s contraception mandate, and will keep lobbying to moderate the language on abortion in the party platform.
Day has high hopes of eventually changing the party platform, one state at a time. “Fortunately,” she says, “I’m an optimist.”
Maria Santos is an editorial assistant at The Weekly Standard.