Pro-Life Democrats and the Catholic Church: Q&A with Kristen Day
Kristen Day is an American Catholic laywoman who serves as executive director of Democrats For Life of America, a political advocacy nonprofit organization that seeks to elect pro-life Democrats and to promote the pro-life position within the Democratic Party on the issues of euthanasia, capital punishment and abortion. She holds a B.A. from Michigan State University.
Ms. Day has written for the Harvard Crimson, National Review, Notre Dame Journal on Law and Public Policy and various other publications. She is the author of Democrats For Life: Pro-Life Politics and the Silenced Majority (New Leaf Press, 2006) on the history of the pro-life Democrat movement.
She is also a regular public speaker behalf of women and pro-life Democrats. Ms. Day has been a guest on NPR's Talk of the Nation, Fox News and Channel 7. She has also been quoted by USA Today, The Washington Post, CNN, Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, The San Francisco Chronicle and other news outlets.
On Oct. 13, I interviewed Ms. Day by email about Catholicism and pro-life Democrats.
In 2006, you wrote an article for the Notre Dame Journal on Law and Public Policy called "Politics and the Culture of Life—Why I am Still a Democrat." Given that the pro-choice platform of the Democratic Party remains unchanged in the nine years since your article, with a dwindling number of pro-life Democratic officials, I will ask the same question here: Why are you still a Democrat?
First, neither major political party is consistent with Catholic teachings. I joined the Democratic Party in 1987 because I agreed with a majority of the issues. The Democratic Party is consistent with Catholic social teaching on a lot of issues. The 2012 platform called for “reclaiming the economic security of the middle class,” ensuring high quality and affordable health care, affordable housing and a “secure, healthy and dignified retirement.” Those are all positions that Catholics should support.
I disagreed with the Democratic position on abortion, but I also made a vow to change it and leaving the party would almost be going against my vocation. Our Catholic teachings encourage us to not “abandon your beliefs” to join a political party, but to stay and try to change that party. I was called into this fight and I will not stop until the sanctity of all human life is protected by the Democratic Party platform.
In his recent video interview with America, Vice President Joe Biden, who is pro-choice, said there is “absolutely” a place for pro-life voters in the Democratic Party. As a pro-life Democrat, can you tell us more about how pro-life Catholics fit into a party that still officially supports legal abortion?
Catholic teaching does not fit neatly into either party. We have to make the best decision we can when aligning with our joining a party.
When you compare the Republican and Democratic Party platforms overall, the Democratic Party platform is superior when you look at support for lifting families out of poverty. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops calls a living wage a “fundamental right of workers and a moral imperative of employers because it provides workers with a means and resources to form and support a family.” They estimate that raising the minimum wage would benefit 30 million workers. When many poor women seek an abortion because of poverty, a living wage can also contribute to protecting human life.
Yes, the Democratic Party fails on this most important protection to the dignity of the unborn, but their policies to address income inequality and support for new mothers, such as WIC, could result in a lower abortion rate because families will have the means to provide housing, nutrition and a safe environment to raise the child.
Although some Democrats are opposed to the death penalty and euthanasia, the other staple issues of your group, many Democratic politicians still support both. How do you feel the Democratic Party is doing on these issues right now?
Shortly after the pope’s visit to the United States, my 11-year-old daughter approached me and said, “Mom, I don’t think people should be killed even if they did something bad.” It was such a simple statement but a wonderful understanding of our position as Catholics. We have a moral responsibility to curb violence and resolving violence with more violence is not the solution. Taking a human life to show the value of human life seems unlikely to work, and the reality is that we know that it does not work: The death penalty is no more effective as a deterrent than life in prison without the possibility of parole. The death penalty provides a finality that cannot be undone, which is particularly troubling when 138 people on death row have been found innocent.
Federal legislation to abolish the death penalty has never had the support of a majority of Americans, so not surprisingly, Congress’s attempts to introduce bills abolishing the death penalty have never had much support. Nonetheless, the Democratic Party has been leading the way. The last bill to abolish the death penalty introduced had only 15 sponsors who were all Democrats. The Senate last had a companion bill in 2010 with only one sponsor, also a Democrat. We have a long way to go, but this is a beginning. The Gallup Poll showed 56 percent of Americans supporting the death penalty in 2015, which is a decline over past years; and if we ever make progress on this issue, it will be with the Democratic Party leading the way.
California recently legalized assisted suicide, rejecting the objections of its Catholic bishops’ conference and other critics. What do you say to Catholic Democrats, like Gov. Jerry Brown who signed the bill, who continue to say they can support pro-choice public policies while remaining personally opposed to them?
Again, our Catholic faith teaches us not “abandon your beliefs” to join a political party, but to stay and try to change that party. This clear rejection of the dignity of human life by Governor Brown brings our nation down a dark path. When a government or society begins to determine who is worthy of life and which lives can be discarded, we begin to edge our way down a slippery slope. It may start with voluntary deaths for those suffering most, whose death is imminent. But soon the message is sent to all: There may be a point when you are no longer needed on this earth and it would best for you to take your own life. The worst circumstances morph into the more mundane—as the notion of a right to die takes hold, protections against coercion erode. And the message that human life is intrinsically valuable, not something we can simply throw away when it is convenient, is sent to all, including those who fear they may be too much of a burden to others to keep on living.
Who are the strongest pro-life Democrats currently in office?
Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV), Senator Joe Donnelly (IN), Colin Peterson (MN) and Dan Lipinski (IL) are the strongest members in the U.S. Congress. We have many state and local Democratic legislators who maintain their strong pro-life positions.
As a Catholic and as a pro-life Democrat, what do you find most objectionable about the Republican Party, which often courts pro-life and pro-family “values voters” more actively?
The Republican Party platform calls for the repeal of Obamacare. Catholic teachings tell us that health care is a basic human right. Democrats agree with the U.S.C.C.B. on opposing repeal. The U.S.C.C.B. supports fixing several “flaws” in the Affordable Care Act, including conscience protections for those who oppose abortion and removing the barrier to Medicaid for immigrants.
Although most U.S. Catholic churchgoers oppose abortion, the unofficial organization “Catholics for Choice” supports “safe and legal” abortion, encouraging Catholics to support pro-choice candidates. From your perspective as a Catholic Democrat, what’s wrong with this position?
Ironically, their mission to allow every individual “to follow their own conscience” is more consistent with the Republican philosophy of putting individual rights over the common good. Further, they are essentially advocating for Catholic Democrats, like Governor Jerry Brown and Vice President Joe Biden, to vote against their moral conscience. Republicans, like Catholics for Choice, believe that government should not interfere in personal decisions.
Some Catholics today vote for pro-choice candidates while claiming to be pro-life, arguing that Roe v. Wade is “bad law,” but that we can’t make abortion illegal until our nation better supports struggling mothers financially. For many fervent pro-life Catholics, however, this position feels like the equivalent of military leaders saying during WWII that “we can’t liberate the German death camps until we win the war and have a place to put survivors.” So the question for pro-lifers often seems to be whether to prioritize the life in immediate danger or the conditions necessary to help that life flourish after we save it. In your view, what’s wrong with a pro-life person voting for a pro-choice candidate on the grounds that we shouldn’t save a life in danger until we feel ready to support it?
Catholic teachings do not ever advocate for people to be disposed of simply because we do not have the means to provide for them. It is not enough to simply oppose abortion; we must provide support and provide options for women facing unplanned or crisis pregnancies. The legislation banning abortions after 20 weeks, providing informed consent and requiring ultrasounds in advance have all played a role in bringing attention to the humanity of the unborn. We should continue to work to end abortion in America with reasonable restrictions to protect both the mother and the child, but also provide more support for pregnant women and new mothers. Our Pregnant Women Support Act is a good start to focus on assisting women who want to carry their children to term, but who feel tremendous pressure to abort. We also must advocate for paid maternity leave, affordable childcare and address other reasons women choose abortion.
In India, Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta ran her first orphanages on a simple principle: If you don’t want your child, “give the child to me” for adoption. She also pleaded: “Don’t destroy the child.” However, we now seem to have a large number of American couples on adoption waiting lists and a shortage of babies available for them—many U.S. parents, in fact, adopt from other countries because we don’t have many babies available in our nation. Yet we still allow people to terminate the human life in their wombs. How do you feel about this situation and, in particular, about Mother Teresa’s belief that a stronger adoption culture renders abortion unnecessary?
Adoption is extremely expensive for families but the demand is high. Infertility is on the rise as families wait longer to start their families and then struggle to conceive. A mother who provides the gift of a child to a family, to another woman who desperately wants to expand her own family, should be lifted up and supported, not shamed.
Under President Obama, the Democratic Party seems to have become more aggressively pro-choice than it was under President Bill Clinton in the 1990s. What is your impression of how the party has changed on pro-life issues under Obama and what is your opinion of his record on these issues?
The Democratic Party has become more aggressively pro-choice particularly since the passage of the ACA. We used to have a 292-seat majority with 110 pro-life Democrats, but that has now dwindled to 184 Democrats in the U.S. House. The uncompromising abortion messaging works in places like New York and California, but in middle-America and smaller towns and cities, a more moderate position on abortion is preferred and the results are showing. We have become an exclusive party of the East Coast and West Coast, instead of an inclusive party representing a big tent philosophy.
In the past three elections cycles, 33 state legislatures have turned from blue to red, 11 governorships have switched from Democratic control to the GOP and, most staggering, 910 Democratic legislative seats are no longer held by Democrats. The Democratic Party is at its lowest numbers since the Hoover Administration. If it continues to be an exclusive party that only represents the views of the minority, it will continue to decline.
What do Democrats need to do in the 2016 election to win the Catholic vote?
Democrats will have a hard time winning the Catholic vote unless they moderate their position on the abortion. According to the Pew Research Center, only 39 percent of white Catholics are identifying as Democrat. Catholics are not voting Republican because they agree with that party, but they are voting for the Republican candidates because they disagree with the Democrat position on life issues. Catholics are also concerned about the Democratic Party infringing on religious rights—particularly with the contraception mandate and forcing nuns to pay for contraception.
The Democrats should be talking less about a fabricated “war on women” and instead focusing on policies—such as paid maternity leave—that lift women up. While the continued focus on contraception and abortion may help raise money, it is causing major damage to Democratic candidates trying to run for office in middle-America.
What do Republicans need to do in the 2016 election to win the Catholic vote?
They do not have to do much. The Democrats have made the case for them. Republicans have gained, not due to overwhelming support for their views, but because of the Democrats’ extreme position on abortion. Republicans have effectively used the sound bite that the “ACA is the biggest expansion of abortion since Roe v. Wade” and that the act provides “federal funding of abortion.” In some districts, 75 percent of voters oppose federal funding of abortion and it is enough to get them to vote against any Democrat, pro-life or otherwise.
As executive director of Democrats for Life of America, what are your hopes and predictions for the 2016 election cycle?
I hope that at least one, if not all, of the Democratic presidential candidates will recognize that our party needs to open the big tent to 21 million Democratic voters who support the sanctity of life. It is time for Catholic politicians to vote their conscience. Sadly, it may take losing the White House for Democrats to recognize and address the problems within our Democratic family.
Where do you find the greatest tension between your politics and the Catholic faith?
The biggest tension is being a Democrat and the pressure to leave the party due to the abortion issue.
What people living or dead inspire you the most in your Catholic faith?
My parents have always been such good examples, raising me to be the person I am today. They continue to inspire and provide guidance to me. They recently decided to convert to Catholicism. (I am a convert myself.) My mom was baptized Catholic, but was raised Episcopalian. At ages 69 and 75, my parents went through RCIA. I was so proud to witness their conversion at the Easter Vigil this past Easter. They continue to provide a wonderful example to myself and to my children about the importance of faith and family.
How do you pray?
As a working mother with three children and a husband, time to reflect and pray is often hard to find. It is so important to find and make time. At a recent pastoral council meeting, one of our members suggested that we can pray anywhere at any time and shared a story of praying at a stop light. I find that I most often pray when I run. As a marathon runner, I have hours of quiet time on the running trail. It is a beautiful time to reflect and thank God for all the many blessings in my life.
What’s your favorite Scripture passage and why?
I like 1 Corinthians 13:4. Like many young couples, my husband and I chose to have this verse read at our wedding. As we approach 20 years together on Oct. 21, we both recognize just how important those words are and how true. The love that has kept us together provides a strong foundation as a couple and provides a strong foundation for our family.
What most impressed you about the pope’s recent U.S. visit?
The overwhelming support of people of all faiths and no faiths. There was just excitement to see or hear the pope. Millions of people waited hours just to get a glimpse. His message to Congress was inspirational and touched so many people. It gave me hope that Congress might heed his call for cooperation.
If you could say one thing to Pope Francis right now, what would it be?
Thank you for the reawakening of the American consciousness, both Catholics and non-Catholics, to unite for the common good.
What do you want people to take away from your work?
Democrats For Life is looking for real solutions. Our goal is to end using abortion as a political football and find consensus among people on both sides to address real choices for women.
What’s your favorite thing about being Catholic?
I love seeing my children learn about our faith. It is amazing to watch their faith in God guide them in their decisions. My youngest, who is 8, is running cross country, which has made him faster in soccer. I tried to make the connection for him, but he is far wiser than me. I asked him if he thought cross country training was making him faster. He responded earnestly, “No, it is a gift, a gift from God.”
Sean Salai, S.J., is a contributing writer at America.