Abortion on the podium: Casey makes passing reference to abortion as Democrats avoid issue

Sen. Bob Casey Jr.
Sen. Bob Casey Jr.


Sixteen years after his father was denied a place on the podium of the Democratic National Convention, pro-life Sen. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania addressed delegates in Boston, and, in an address on the economy, referred to his opposition to abortion—the very position the elder Casey says got him barred from speaking in 1992.

“I’m proud to stand before you as Governor Casey’s son,” Casey began his remarks, immediately evoking the tension between the Democratic Party’s leadership and it’s pro-life minority.

In the summer of 1992, Pennsylvania Governor Robert Casey had his name in the headlines, as he was at the losing end of Planned Parenthood v. Casey, the decision that upheld most of Roe and instituted the “undue burden,” test for restrictions on abortion. As a Democratic governor of a swing state, he expected and requested a speaking slot at that summer’s convention, but he was turned down. Casey said it was because of his pro-life views. Operatives for Bill Clinton say it was because Casey would not campaign for Clinton.

In 1992 and since then, other pro-life Democrats have spoken from the podium, but never about abortion. Tuesday, Sen. Casey made only a passing reference to his pro-life stance. “Barack Obama and I have an honest disagreement on the issue of abortion. But the fact that I’m speaking here tonight is testament to Barack's ability to show respect for the views of people who may disagree with him.” This received quiet applause from Pennsylvania’s delegates, and Casey then returned to economic issues.

Kristen Day, executive director of Democrats’ for Life of America, says she was pleased with Casey’s speech, telling Catholic News Agency it conveyed “a good sense of eliminating the litmus test for being a Democrat.

Four years ago, pro-life Rep. James Langevin (D.-R.I.) spoke at the convention—but this caused even more agitation among pro-lifers such as Day. “He said he believed in the sanctity of life,” Day said, “but he went on to talk about embryonic stem-cell research, which flies in the face of the sanctity of life.”

This past Tuesday, at about 5 p.m., pro-life West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin addressed the convention—to a much smaller and less attentive crowd than Casey enjoyed. Manchin, chairman of the National Governors’ Association, did not address abortion even remotely, focusing instead on economic issues and energy.

Nick Casey, chairman of the West Virginia Democratic Party, said that while the state party has a pro-life platform, he didn’t want more pro-life talk on the podium. He described abortion as an “issue Republicans use to divide us,” and attributes Bush’s twice carrying West Virginia to Karl Rove “driving the wedge on abortion, guns, and gays.”

On the other hand, there has not been much defense of abortion from the podium either. Shortly before Manchin’s speech Tuesday, Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards addressed the crowd. She completely refrained from the words “abortion” or “reproductive rights,” talking instead repeatedly about “women’s health care needs,” and making one reference to “a woman’s right to choose.” This echoes the near-silence on abortion from the Democratic podium four years ago.

At the 2004 convention, the lack of abortion discussion on the podium was notable because abortion and judges were the most common answers I received when asking delegates which issues were most important. This year, however, the delegates called abortion a non-issue—echoing Obama’s dismissal of the abortion debate as an effort “to distract us from the issues that affect our lives.”

New Hampshire Delegate Paul O’Connor, President of the Metal Trades Council, the blue-collar union at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, says “I want to limit abortion, but it’s not a top issue—I’m a union guy.”

The execption this year was the speech by NARAL Pro-Choice America President Nancy Keenan delivered at 4:40 pm on Monday, well before prime time. Keenan vociferously defended abortion and assailed McCain. “Reproductive freedom is on the line,” she said. “John McCain has spent more than 25 years in Washington voting against women’s freedom and has pledged to appoint justices to the Supreme Court who will overturn Roe v. Wade.”

A search of the Convention’s official website and a search of transcripts on Nexis revealed that Casey and Keenan were the only two speakers—out of the nearly 100 who spoke in the first two days—to say the word “abortion.” Only three, Keenan, Richards, and DNC Platform Chair Judith McHale, spoke the words “right to choose.”

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