Those questions ultimately led him to Democrats for Life of America, which states on its website that "every human being is worthy of dignity and respect, from fertilization to natural death."
But Oliver says the real turning point for him politically was Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy’s effort to pass the New Jersey Reproductive Freedom Act.
Crafted as a hedge against the possible decision in the Dobbs case that would overturn the Supreme Court's 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion nationwide, the legislation would codify an unrestricted right to abortion up to the moment of birth, while removing the state’s longstanding conscience protection for medical professionals who object to abortion.
Additionally, the act authorizes non-physicians to perform certain abortions, and requires insurers to cover abortions with no out-of-pocket costs. It also mandates an annual allocation of state taxpayer funds to Planned Parenthood.
“Those provisions terrified me, honestly,” Oliver said. “I started talking to DFLA and we started a movement to protest it, which I think was pretty effective.” After enough Democrats were persuaded the legislation was too extreme, the legislation stalled in the state's legislature last year, though Murphy, a Catholic, is pushing to get it passed in 2022.
Oliver said the extreme nature of the legislation “galvanized” his thinking on the abortion issue.
“At first I was kind of afraid to talk about it, because I don’t want to be accused of being anti-woman or not being sensitive to people who have to make that difficult decision,” he said. “But then I realized that … this is the civil rights issue of our time.”
Oliver says some of his fellow Democrats have privately told them that they share his pro-life views, but they're too afraid to buck the party. At the same time, Oliver says it disturbs him to hear some abortion rights proponents talk about the issue in a way that “goes beyond pro-choice to pro-abortion” and equates abortion with routine health care.
“I’m even starting to hear people say, ‘Yes, the fetus is a (human) life, but abortion is still OK,’” he said.
Taking the high road
Oliver and the DFLA have their work cut out for them staving off the abortion legislation in New Jersey indefinitely. In addition to pressing for the act to be passed, Murphy found a way around the legislature when political appointees sitting on the New Jersey Board of Medical Examiners agreed to allow nurses and midwives to perform first-trimester abortions, effective Dec. 6.
Kristen Day, DFLA’s executive director, calls Oliver a role model for pro-life Democrats, in the tradition of former Illinois congressman Dan Lipinski.
“I just have such respect for him, because when they went after him before, right before the election, he took the high road. He never called anybody names, he never got angry. He just laid out his case why he would be a good candidate, and all the things that he has done to support Democrats in New Jersey,” Day said of Oliver.
“So I think what they’re doing to him now is just really terrible. I mean, the names they’re calling him, the emails that they're sending. It’s just not what the Democratic Party, (which) prides itself on diversity and inclusion, should be doing to someone who really cares about the party and wants to elect Democrats and who cares about feeding the poor, cares about … affordable health care and child care. I mean, he’s fighting for all of that. In addition, he wants to support pregnant moms and the right to parent,” Day said.
“New Jersey's abortion numbers are an embarrassment,” Day added, referring to data from the Guttmacher Institute that place the state’s abortion rate among the highest in the U.S. “We should be doing more as a party to lower the abortion rate in New Jersey and provide women with real choice. And because he’s doing that, they're trying to kick him out of the party.”
Oliver, who spent six weeks guarding the U.S. Capitol with his National Guard unit after the civil unrest on Jan. 6, isn’t sure what’s next for him, politically. Asked if he is considering switching to the Republican Party, Oliver said he would prefer to remain a Democrat, though his party isn't making it easy for him.
In the meantime, he says his faith is helping him weather the adversity he faces now.
“My faith tells me that life begins at conception," Oliver said. "So my Christian beliefs certainly inform my position on the issue. But they also allow me to hold firm on it, as well.
"They allow me to still advocate for life, even amidst all the criticism, and even hatred," he said.
Shannon Mullen is the Editor-in-Chief of CNA. He previously worked as a features writer, investigative reporter, and editor with the Asbury Park (N.J.) Press. He has received numerous national reporting awards and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.