Tom Perille, a physician specializing in internal medicine in Englewood, has been a registered Democrat since he moved to Colorado in 1983. For most of his life, he has also held a belief that isn’t commonly associated with the Democratic Party: that "abortion is a moral tragedy,” he says.
Perille is now the president of Colorado’s chapter of Democrats for Life of America, the “preeminent national organization for pro-life Democrats,” according to its website. Earlier this year, Perille’s team won the bid to host the organization’s annual gathering in Denver. The theme of the conference, which will take place at the Radisson Hotel in southeast Denver from Friday, July 20, through Sunday, July 22, will be “I Want My Party Back.” Perille hopes the conference will give voice to pro-life Democrats who believe that putting restrictions on abortion is consistent with progressive values.
But two reproductive-rights advocates at ProgressNow Colorado, a progressive advocacy organization, argue that the conference won't be entirely for Democrats. Their research revealed that at least half of the speakers lined up for the conference are not Democrats, but registered Republicans or independents. (The rest of the speakers either had no voting records or couldn't be located in the database.) The only speakers who are known registered Democrats are Democrats for Life of America executive staff members and two former Congressional representatives, Bart Stupak of Michigan and Lincoln Davis of Tennessee.
“You can’t really claim to take back a party that you’re not affiliated with,” says Fawn Bolak, reproductive-rights content director at ProgressNow Colorado. “What this really looks like is a group of folks posing as progressives, trying to split progressives on the issue of abortion. It’s intentionally misleading.”
Nonetheless, Democrats for Life of America insists that the organization is composed of real progressives, who simply differ on a few issues. (Adopting a “Pro Life for the Whole Life” stance, the group also opposes end-of-life physician-assisted suicide, which many progressives support and was legalized in Colorado when voters passed the End of Life Options Act in 2016.) “I grew up in a time where the Democratic Party stood for the most vulnerable in our society,” Perille says. “We want the party back to be the voice for the most vulnerable.”
To uphold its idea of protecting the vulnerable, Democrats for Life of America advocates for abortion restrictions while simultaneously supporting measures like paid family leave and publicly funded support for pregnant women — social programs that many conservative pro-lifers oppose. According to Perille, members may have differing views on specific issues, such as whether Roe v. Wade should be overturned and whether sex education should be abstinence-based. Perille says he does not know whether Democrats for Life America has official positions on these issues, noting that members would like to see abortion end but have differing views on how that should be achieved.
But according to Democrats for Life America executive director Kristen Day, the organization “would not oppose” overturning Roe v. Wade and giving individual states the option to ban abortion. The group supports a ban on abortions after twenty weeks, she says, and also advocates for defunding Planned Parenthood and reallocating that funding to community health centers that do not perform abortions — including those that, as Westword reported last month, pro-choice advocates have dubbed “fake women’s clinics.”
Bolak and her colleague, Alex Ferencz, reproductive-rights outreach director at ProgressNow Colorado, argue that the organization and its upcoming conference splits from key Democratic party values.
"We know that the Colorado Democratic Party platform is very rigid in supporting abortion rights, and so is the national platform,” Ferencz says.
“Of course, DFLA is going to say that there is room to incorporate more pro-life views into the party. But at the end of the day, the fact that they have no current Democratic legislators speaking at this conference speaks volumes,” Bolak adds. (While no current legislators will speak at the conference, Congressman Dan Lipinski, a pro-life Democrat from Illinois, will accept an award via live video feed.)
Democrats for Life of America members are well aware that most Democratic legislators don’t share their views; there are currently only three pro-life Democrats in Congress. But that doesn't hold true with the electorate. A 2017 Gallup poll found that a surprising 26 percent of registered Democrats self-identified as pro-life, and 32 percent said they considered abortion to be morally wrong.
Perille says the party has been “hijacked intellectually” by abortion lobbyists, unable to recognize either the moral argument that pro-lifers are making or the political benefit of becoming the “big tent” party, inclusive of both pro-life and pro-choice views. Democrats for Life of America argues that the Democrats' swing toward pro-choice platforms has isolated voters and resulted in big losses for the party. For example, Day attributes Republicans’ sweeping victories in the 2014 midterm elections partly to Democrats’ choice to expand abortion coverage in the Affordable Care Act.
“I do think that’s part of the reason that [Hillary] Clinton lost. People couldn’t vote for her after that,” Day says, referring to the presidential debate in which she stood by her previous support for late-term abortions. “You can’t put abortion above everything else."
Day was unsure how many speakers at the conference were Democrats, but says that "a lot of the speakers are former Democrats, come from Democratic families or would be Democrats if the party stopped advocating solely for abortion. One of the most common phrases I hear from former Democrats is 'I didn't leave my party, my party left me.'"
Perille says that although some of the speakers often appear at more traditional pro-life events — such as Abby Johnson, a former Planned Parenthood director who now urges clinic workers to leave their jobs — others are unabashedly progressive and self-identified feminists, like self-proclaimed “Pro-Life Post-Abortive Atheist” Albany Rose, who is a registered Republican, according to ProgressNow.
As president of the Colorado chapter, Perille has spent the past few years lobbying Congress, communicating with members, and doing grassroots outreach across the state. He says that both parties are generally “bewildered by us. … When I try collaborate with other pro-lifers, I have to overcome the bias against Democrats and be at the table, and when I try to collaborate with Democrats, I have to overcome the bias against the pro-life position.”
And that’s a bias that pro-choice progressives aren’t willing to give up. “The Democratic Party has been fighting for decades for racial and economic equality,” Bolak says. “Abortion rights are closely bound up with someone being able to achieve.”
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This year’s conference, Bolak notes, is especially important considering that President Donald Trump has nominated Brett Kavanaugh to fill Anthony Kennedy’s seat on the U.S. Supreme Court, potentially giving the court enough votes to overturn Roe v. Wade.
“This is real. We’re not talking about this in an abstract way. Before Roe, we saw women die, women who were criminalized because of [lack of] access,” Bolak adds.
Bolak cautions people who are considering attending the conference to be wary: “I would say, know who you’re talking to. I’m not going to tell you what to do; I’m a huge proponent of people being able to make their own decisions. But let’s have a conversation about that after. Let’s have both sides of the story.”
Representatives from ProgressNow Colorado and NARAL Pro-Choice Colorado plan to hold a gathering outside the “I Want My Party Back” conference at 9 a.m. on Saturday, July 21 to “call out the group as contradictory to the Democratic Party platform and fundamentally incompatible with Colorado values.” They will be joined by Democratic state senator Rhonda Fields and representatives Leslie Herod and Jovan Melton.