In sometimes subtle ways, Democratic party leaders and political professionals are grappling with how to address abortion, an internal debate that turns on questions of emphasis, political positioning and how far to go in accepting as a public policy goal the view that abortion is a moral tragedy to be avoided.
While there is no serious discussion of moving away from the party's long-standing support of abortion rights, some moderates have pressed the party to more aggressively press a message that Democrats would work to reduce the number of abortions. But the party's pro-abortion rights constituency is wary of too strong an identification of abortion as a social ill, fearing that would provide political momentum for legal restrictions.
"Where is the Democratic Party on abortion?" asks Rachel Laser, an abortion policy expert for Third Way, a moderate Democratic group. "I think they are still heavily in a phase of re-thinking it."
And as the 2008 general election approaches, Democrats also will have to decide how much emphasis to place on rallying their base on the core issue of abortion rights. After the replacement of Justice Sandra Day O'Connor by Justice Samuel Alito, the abortion-rights majority on the Supreme Court appears to have narrowed to a one-vote margin, with two of those votes supplied by 87-year Justice John Paul Stevens and 74-year-old Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. That offers the opportunity to raise an alarm over the survival of a constitutional guarantee of abortion rights, though pressing that point too hard risks intensifying public identification of Democrats as the party of abortion.
While paying homage to the party's strong pro-abortion rights constituency, the leading Democratic presidential candidates have been at pains to put the abortion issue in a broader context including an effort to strengthen families, prevent unwanted pregnancies and improve family planning.
None of the major Democratic presidential hopefuls is wavering in his or her allegiance to the core document of the abortion rights movement, the Supreme Court's 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision guaranteeing the right to an abortion.
Nor, despite many Americans' opposition to a late-term procedure called by opponents "partial-birth abortion," have any of the leading candidates embraced the federal ban on the procedure.
But the front-runners in particular, as they eye the 2008 general election and the need to attract centrist voters, have been hurrying to move the conversation to safer ground.
This was in evidence during a forum last week before Planned Parenthood, a group that strongly supports abortion rights. Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., stressed contraception and sex education, delivering a blistering attack on the Bush administration and congressional Republicans for policies she said limited access to both.
Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., offered a vision of equal opportunity for women through an "updated social contract" that tied together better access to contraception and sex education with initiatives that could help two-income families, such as paid maternity leave and longer school days.
"If the argument is narrow, then often times we lose," he said. "If you ask the most conservative person, do they want their daughters to have the same chances as men, most will answer in the affirmative. . . . We can win that argument."
The Democrats' public positioning on abortion has been evolving for many years beyond a pure rights-based philosophy to a more nuanced view that takes greater account of many Americans' deeply conflicted feelings while still solidly supporting the principle that women should have the choice of aborting a pregnancy. Bill Clinton won the White House in 1992 with promises he would seek to make abortion "safe, legal and rare."
The party has recently gone further. In the last election, Democrats embraced anti-abortion candidates, at least on the state and local level. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., an abortion opponent, was one of the Democrats' marquee candidates in 2006. And aggressive recruiting of anti-abortion candidates for rural conservative districts was a key component of party leaders' strategy to re take the House.
Former President Jimmy Carter spoke out publicly in 2005 to condemn his party's orthodoxy in favor of abortion rights, arguing it has distanced Democrats from religious voters and social moderates and conservatives.
The softer approach that many Democrats are advocating on abortion reflects some of the same political calculations behind party leaders' strategy to tread carefully during last year's congressional elections on such gut social issues such as gun control and gay rights. Those cultural causes in many cases raise tensions with the party's working-class base.
Since 1998, the country has been fairly evenly divided on abortion, with a Gallup Poll this May finding 49 percent of Americans consider themselves "pro-choice" and 45 percent "pro-life." Given the choice, most Americans gravitate toward the middle, saying abortion should be legal in some but not all circumstances, though there is significant disagreement on how broadly the procedure should be permitted.
In Congress, Democrats have sought to shift the political dialogue on abortion to a focus on a "prevention" agenda that includes assistance for contraceptive services and sex education with contraception information, along with support for pregnant women and assistance for new mothers.
House Democrats introduced a "Reducing the Need for Abortions Initiative" just before the 2006 election and incorporated parts of it this year in the annual appropriations bill funding health and social services. But the House package did not include restrictions on women's abilities to get abortions.
Democrats also have chosen conflicts with Republicans that sharpen distinctions with social conservatives on those issues.
One of the major battles that congressional Democrats waged with the Bush administration was over delayed Food and Drug Administration's approval of over-the-counter sales for adult women of the "morning-after" contraceptive pill, which supporters call emergency contraception.
Clinton was a leader in that fight, blocking confirmation of an FDA commissioner until the agency ruled on the drug application. More recently, she has introduced legislation to guarantee access to the drug to women in the military.
Clinton pressed the theme of access to contraception at the Planned Parenthood forum, presenting it as a partisan distinction.
"They don't just want to wage a war on choice," Clinton said. "They want to wage a war on contraception. They are against family planning. In the 21st Century, they want to prevent women from having access to the tools they should have to determine their own reproductive futures."
Still, some Democrats see no need for nuance. Presidential contender John Edwards, who is appealing to the left wing of the party, is unabashedly espousing the views of the abortion rights movement. At the Planned Parenthood gathering, his wife Elizabeth lauded her husband's health-care initiative because it would include abortion coverage for all American women.
She described her husband as "pro-choice - not pro-choice reluctantly, not pro-choice usually, he is simply pro-choice."