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Gov. Edwards’ Stakes Out An Increasingly Lonely Stance Against Abortion In The Democratic Party


The 2020 Democratic platform is 91 pages. Its section on reproductive rights — less than a page.

But that one page represents the culmination of the party’s shift from luke warm on abortion access to full-throated support of the full range of reproductive rights over the last decade.

The spotlight during this week’s Democratic convention has focused on Kamala Harris’s historic nomination, the coronavirus pandemic, ongoing civil rights unrest and economic recession, but 2020 will be a decisive year for the fate of abortion access in America. And the Democrats have taken an unreserved stance to defend and expand it — the exact opposite position of Gov. John Bel Edwards.

In 2016, the party officially denounced the Hyde Amendment, which prevents federal funding for abortion, placing a significant financial burden on low-income women and women of color seeking abortions.

The 2020 platform again promises to repeal the Hyde Amendment, and also to fund international reproducitve health efforts that include abortion and codify reproductive rights into federal law. The last would ensure abortion access is protected by statute, not the interpretation of the U.S. Constitution and past U.S. Supreme Court decisions on abortion by the now majority-conservative bench.

For Edwards, the stance is a dealbreaker. He’s refused to sign on to the party’s platform.

“It's no secret that I'm out of step with the national party on this issue; I'm certainly not out of step here with the vast majority of Louisiana,” he told reporters during a press conference Tuesday.

Edwards is of an increasingly scarce species: a stridently anti-abortion Democrat. He’s in lock-step with the most extreme anti-abortion politicians in the nation, a fact he proved when he signed a near-total abortion ban into law last year (though the ban has never taken effect).

His unicorn-like political status on the national stage makes some sense here: Surveys have found more people in Louisiana oppose abortion than in any other state. He’s the most prominent — and only sitting governor — of the roughly 100 Democrats who signed a letter written by the group Democrats for Life decrying the party’s new platform and demanding it change.

“I think so many Democrats feel pressure to move away from protecting life in the womb, and he just has never wavered,” said Kristen Day, the executive director of Democrats for Life, which instigated the letter.

Day calls Edwards a “model” pro-life Democrat, one who gives hope to others who oppose reproductive rights while supporting the rest of the Democratic Party positions.

In the letter, Edwards and other signatories call the party’s platform a “betrayal” of Democratic values of inclusivity.

But for Michelle Erenberg, co-founder of the nonprofit Lift Louisiana, which advocates for abortion access, Edwards is aiding an unnecessary push that sows division at a time when progressives need to unite against "a conservative administration and a conservative movement that's really kind of run amok in this country" — and ahead of a key election for reproductive rights in Louisiana.

“It kind of baffles me that he thinks that this is a position that he needs to take when he's speaking to a national audience,” she said. “It seems just counterproductive to the fight that we have ahead of us.”

Along with the next occupant of the White House, Louisianans will be voting on a crucial constitutional amendment that could cement a ban on all abortion access in the state in the event Roe v. Wade was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court.

And that’s not such a far-flung eventuality. Trump’s appointments to the Supreme Court make it possible — some believe even likely — over the next few years.

Both parties have shifted over time

During past years, especially since 2010, when Democrats were more flimsy in support of abortion rights, the GOP was seeking to dismantle them with a more razor focus.

As a result, the U.S. has lost hundreds of abortion clinics, as mostly Republican-controlled states have passed hundreds of new abortion restrictions. And that was before Trump ran on a promise to overturn Roe v. Wade.

“Certainly in the Donald Trump era, the GOP is highly, highly relying on social conservative, anti-abortion voters,” said Mary Ziegler, a professor of law at Florida State University and the author of numerous books on abortion in America. She said that dependency wasn’t always so complete. One example: the influential 1990s group Republicans for Choice. It was run by Ann Stone, the wife of Roger Stone — “you know, that Roger Stone,” Ziegler said. Ann Stone went on to co-chair Women Vote Trump 2016.

Ziegler said both parties have been moving towards a more extreme stance on abortion. They now represent ideological poles, rather than the views of most Americans.

While surveys show more Americans agree with Democrats than Republicans on abortion, there’s a large and messy middle ground. A majority of Americans support Roe v. Wade, but many also approve of some abortion restrictions.

For Democrats, the shift to a more complete support for abortion rights has come largely thanks to the efforts of activists of color — especially Black women — advocating for reproductive justice. The term is used to describe complete autonomy and support for all reproductive choices, including ending pregnancies and raising children in safe and healthy environments.

Pro-life Democrats worry about “ceding” states to the GOP

The wave of pro-choice Democratic activism that began after Trump’s election did help the party gain big wins in the 2018 midterms, and may do so again this fall.

Then there’s what’s at stake for the party if Biden loses and the Democrats don’t take back the Senate: likely more appointments to the Supreme Court for Donald Trump, and the loss of a chance to codify reproductive rights into federal law.

But in its letter, Democrats for Life warns of “ceding large swaths of the United States to the Republican Party.”

As the only Democratic governor in the Deep South — in a state that is overwhelmingly likely to re-elect Donald Trump — Edwards might be a case in point of how a less militant stand for abortion access could help candidates in state-wide elections.

“We need to be louder. We need to be bolder. We need to let Joe Biden know that he shouldn't take our vote for granted — we are an important voting bloc,” Day said.

Day said she still hopes to change the party’s platform, that it’s possible right up until election day.

“You need unity across a broad spectrum of individuals and thoughts,” Edwards said, adding that he believes the ‘big tent’ model of a diverse Democratic Party is “the best way to win.”

Voters who prize reproductive rights, though, wouldn’t likely agree.

Copyright 2021 WWNO - New Orleans Public Radio. To see more, visit WWNO - New Orleans Public Radio.

Rosemary Westwood is the public reporter for WWNO/WRKF. She was previously a freelance writer specializing in gender and reproductive rights, a radio producer, columnist, magazine writer and podcast host.
Rosemary Westwood
Rosemary Westwood is the public and reproductive health reporter for WWNO/WRKF. She was previously a freelance writer specializing in gender and reproductive rights, a radio producer, columnist, magazine writer and podcast host.