Though South Carolina’s Democrats are more religious and more pro-life than voters in other early primary states, presidential candidates are sticking to the increasingly strident pro-choice positions held by their party.
Democrats for Life of America used the campaign push in the South as a chance to call on candidates to consider the place of pro-life voters in their coalition. The South Carolina Legislature has voted forward a “heartbeat bill,” one of the most restrictive anti-abortion laws in the country, and its Republican Senator Lindsey Graham sponsored the 20-week abortion ban voted on in the US Senate this week.
Evangelical Protestants and black Protestants make up half the population in South Carolina (compared to 30 percent of the overall US population). As Democrats engage in unprecedented levels of outreach to religious voters, many candidates make their way through black churches in the Southern state as they rally support. Kristen Day, executive director of the pro-life Democrats group, spoke at a press conference before Tuesday’s debate, reminding the presidential hopefuls from her party that many of the African American voters they are courting are less supportive of abortion than white Democrats or the party overall.
Exit polls from the 2016 primary show 61 percent of Democratic voters in South Carolina were African American, and Christian faith plays a key role among black voters, Day said.
Speaking in Charleston, South Carolina, Harriet Bradley, an African American minister and state chapter coordinator for Democrats for Life of America, quoted Proverbs 6:16–17, naming “hands that shed innocent blood” among the “things the Lord hates.” She described her deep desire to vote in a way that would please God but also expressed a commitment to being “pro-life for the whole life.”
Abortion policy did not come up during this week’s debate in Charleston. But former Vice President Joe Biden, a moderate Catholic Democrat who is staking his campaign’s future on his performance in Saturday’s primary, brought up abortion when asked about women’s empowerment in poor and overpopulated countries in a town hall in the state on Thursday.
Biden spoke out against the Mexico City Policy, which is a ban on federal funding for abortions overseas that was reinstated by President Trump. Biden said, “I strongly oppose the limitations on the ability for the United States to contribute to organizations in these countries that, in fact, provide women's health alternatives for choice,” prompting applause from the crowd of more than 1,900 people.
Last year, Biden withdrew his support for the Hyde Amendment, which prevents federal funds from going directly to abortion in the US. Until recently, the Hyde provision was seen as the status quo for federal abortion policy. After the Democratic Party officially called for the repeal of Hyde, every major candidate in this year’s Democratic race has echoed that.
Day and other pro-life Democrats represent a minority in the party, but they argue that they could be a strategic part of a coalition to beat President Trump. A Kaiser Family Foundation poll from December 2019 found that 15 percent of Democrats and 41 percent of Independents consider themselves pro-life.
Members of Democrats for Life of America want to see more Democrats favor restrictions on abortion after 20 weeks and return to the “safe, legal, and rare” approach fronted by President Bill Clinton.
Yet the Democratic party’s position on abortion continues to move to the left. In 2018, over 65 percent of Democrats supported a woman’s right to an abortion for any reason, while less than 35 percent of Democrats held the same position in 1977, according to General Social Survey data analyzed by Ryan Burge, political science professor at Eastern Illinois University.
According to Burge, 42 percent of white evangelicals that lean Democrat and nearly 70 percent (69.3) of white evangelicals that identify as Independent support the Hyde Amendment.
Despite calls for welcoming a wider range of views on abortion, Biden, Senator Elizabeth Warren, Senator Bernie Sanders, Tom Steyer, and Mayor Pete Buttigieg stuck with party leadership to support pro-choice positions “litmus test” for Democrats.
When Day asked Buttigieg during a town hall last month if voters like her were welcome in the party, he backed the party’s position and Roe v. Wade.
“What struck me was that I didn’t ask his position on abortion. The question was, ‘Does he want the support of 21 million voters, and would he change the party position to reflect the diversity of opinion on abortion?’” Day told CT.
Though Senator Amy Klobuchar supports repealing Hyde and funding Planned Parenthood, she has voiced support for welcoming pro-life Democrats in the party. On The View, she told Meghan McCain, “There are pro-life Democrats, and they are part of our party, and I think we need to build a big tent. I think we need to bring people in instead of shutting them out.”
Day was pleased to hear such an invitation from Klobuchar, but she still wants to see the party change the language in its platform for such welcoming rhetoric to be meaningful for pro-life Democrats.