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Abortion Foes Choose Life Within the Party

A small faction of Democrats soldiers on with a message more at home in the GOP. But the dissidents say they're not moving from their position, or their political base.


Eight years after the late Pennsylvania Gov. Robert P. Casey Sr., a loyal Democrat who opposed abortion, was denied a spot on the podium, anti-abortion Democrats say they are still struggling to be heard within a party where many leaders would prefer they just stay away or, at a minimum, stay quiet.

This afternoon, though, the anti-abortion Democrats will get a minor nod from the "party of inclusiveness" with a short videotape honoring Casey--to be shown at 2 p.m., when the floor is mostly empty and the television cameras nearly all dark.

"It's a step in the right direction," said Patrick Casey, who, together with his brother Robert, will speak briefly in memory of their father. "But whatever we say or whatever the video says, it will not do justice to what he would have said in 1992."

Earlier in the week, Patrick Casey, a U.S. congressional candidate in his native Pennsylvania, joined fellow partisans at a reception in his father's honor held 12 long blocks from the convention hall.

"The pro-life Democrats are meeting," said Rod Flewelling, one such rarity himself. "I guess they'll fit in a phone booth."

They almost could have. The two-hour event Tuesday never had much more than a dozen folks in attendance. Officials from Democrats for Life of America--the national anti-abortion group that threw the tiny punch-and-hors d'oeuvre party--said their goal is to let like-minded Democrats know they have company.

"We are Democrats," said Lois Kerschen, the 300-member group's president. "We are not Republicans in sheep's clothing as we've been accused. We have devoted our energies to this party, and we are not leaving."

In a party that touts diversity, Democrats who oppose abortion say they are still excluded, ignored and even bombarded with angry screams when they try to make their case. A volunteer who was distributing anti-abortion fliers to delegates this week had one wadded up into a ball and thrown back in her face, Kerschen recounted.

So why do they stay?

Many say they have strong ties to the Democratic Party, particularly in its efforts to reach out to minorities, the poor and the disadvantaged. They argue that the Democratic Party is the natural place for all their political views, right down to their opposition to abortion rights.

"I was registered Republican for a while, but it never felt right," said Louis Shapiro, a practicing Roman Catholic who grew up in New York and said he never met a Catholic Republican until he moved West.

For Shapiro, a resident of Los Angeles, his anti-abortion stance is in keeping with other beliefs he sees as fitting into the Democratic agenda. And Shapiro said he believes that there are others in the party faithful who feel the same way.

"One man confessed to me he was pro-life too, like it was secret," he said of his efforts this week to canvass delegate hotels with his message.

It certainly wasn't a view expressed by many on the convention floor, where "Pro-Choice" buttons were bountiful and "Pro-Life" buttons nowhere to be found. Mentions from the podium of a woman's right to choose, including in the first lady's speech Monday night, were met with thunderous applause and the waving of appropriate hand-held signs.

The convention delegates, however, may not mirror the overall makeup of the party. While a minority, anti-abortion Democrats are a decent chunk of voters. A Times Poll conducted in June found that 20% of those who identified themselves as Democrats disagreed with the statement: "No matter how I feel about abortion, I believe it is a decision that has to be made by a woman and her doctor."

And some longtime elected Democrats argue it is a mistake to ignore those voters, just as it was a mistake to keep Casey from speaking his mind in 1992.

"This party cannot continue to win elections if it's going to exclude the pro-life movement," said Rep. James L. Oberstar (D-Minn.), who was the only member of Congress to attend Tuesday's event.

He promised that he and his fellow 40-odd Democratic members of the Congressional Right to Life caucus would continue to fight for the "unborn."

And Oberstar scoffed at the idea of changing his party affiliation.

"The Republicans will get you born," he said, "but you're on your own from then on."

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