In an interview with America last September, Vice President Joe Biden said that pro-life people are "absolutely, positively" welcome in the Democratic Party. Some may be wondering, however, as the party prepares its 2016 platform for November. Though the proposed platform this election cycle includes a call for an end to the death penalty that pro-life Democrats would cheer, it also for the first time seeks to overturn federal rules that prohibit tax dollars from funding abortion.
“We believe unequivocally that every woman should have access to quality reproductive health care services, including safe and legal abortion—regardless of where she lives, how much money she makes, or how she is insured,” states a draft of the party platform released Friday.
The draft, which will be voted on later this month at the party’s convention in Philadelphia, echoes calls from presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton to overturn the so-called Hyde Amendment. The rule, first introduced in 1976 by Republican Congressman Henry Hyde, a Catholic, bars Medicaid from funding most abortions.
“We will continue to oppose—and seek to overturn—federal and state laws and policies that impede a woman’s access to abortion, including by repealing the Hyde Amendment,” the draft reads.
The draft platform also calls for an end to the Helms Amendment, which prohibits U.S. foreign aid from being used to fund abortions.
Some Catholic leaders active in Democratic politics reacted to the change with dismay.
“The platform is less welcoming to pro-life Democrats and Catholic progressives than the platforms in 2008 and 2012,” Stephen Schneck, director of the Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies at The Catholic University of America and a co-chair of the group Catholics for Obama, tweeted Monday.
Sister Simone Campbell, head of NETWORK and a speaker at the 2012 Democratic Convention, called the abortion proposal “a political mistake and a policy mistake.”
“It’s a political mistake because some I know in the Democratic Party think it’s not possible to lose this election, and quite frankly, traveling around the country, I’ve come to another conclusion: that it is possible and this is not the time to move your agenda to the far left,” she said.
Campbell told America that the party should remain a “big tent” and “welcome people in and not push people out.” She said the Hyde Amendment is “the best thing that we have to ensure a value of life in federal funding” and that it’s allowed “various perspectives to flourish in our society.” She said she is hopeful party leaders will alter the language around abortion before the platform committee meets this weekend in Florida.
Christopher Hale, head of Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, called the language a “disservice” to Democrats who disagree about life issues, invoking Vice President Biden’s call to make the party “a big tent.”
The platform, Hale said, “belittles the 21 million Americans who proudly identify as Democrats but disagree with the party’s stance on beginning and end-of-life issues. The party should listen to Joe Biden and ensure pro-life Americans are welcomed in the Democratic Party.”
Another activist, Steve Krueger, said he found the draft platform to be “one of the least faith-friendly abortion planks that the Democratic Party has ever considered.”
Krueger, president of Catholic Democrats, said he looked at party platforms going back to 1976 and found nuance around abortion lacking in the 2016 draft. He said the language was problematic, saying it didn’t reflect the reality that many Americans simultaneously support legal abortion access while having moral qualms about its widespread use.
“What kind of relationship is the Democratic Party going to form with people of faith and faith communities? How much room is there in the Democratic Party for people of faith to bring their views into the party and how sensitive will the party be to those constituencies?” he asked.
The Hyde and Helms Amendments are not permanent laws, but rather perennial amendments attached to federal spending bills. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has called on lawmakers to pass a law prohibiting the use of taxpayer money for abortion.
When it comes to the death penalty, the draft platform calls for an end to capital punishment, a position that would put the party to the left of its presumptive nominee.
“We will abolish the death penalty, which has proven to be a cruel and unusual form of punishment,” the draft reads. “It has no place in the United States of America.”
In an October speech at New Hampshire’s Saint Anselm College, Clinton said that the death penalty has been “too frequently applied, and too often in a discriminatory way” but stopped short of saying she opposed it.
“I do not favor abolishing it, however, because I do think there are certain egregious cases that still deserve the consideration of the death penalty, but I’d like to see those be very limited and rare, as opposed to what we’ve seen in most states,” she continued.
Clinton’s onetime rival for the nomination, Senator Bernie Sanders, has not yet conceded, vowing to bring a fight to the convention floor unless the platform pays attention to progressive causes, especially economic issues. Democrats meet July 25-28 in Philadelphia where they will vote on the final platform.
Michael O'Loughlinis America's national correspondent.