An Open Letter To Bernie Sanders

Dear Bernie:

Kudos for your chutzpah. You’d shrivel the Democratic Party into an exclusive club of purists and exile anyone failing a single-issue litmus test – all in the name of liberal open-mindedness.  

I refer to your statement: “I think being pro-choice is an absolutely essential part of being a Democrat.” That’s downright sassy. First, it backpedals on your 2017 position, articulated after NARAL nitpicked your endorsement of a pro-life Democrat: “I think you just can’t exclude people who disagree with us on one issue.” Second, and perhaps more important, you’re not exactly a party loyalist. You only paste on the Democratic label every four years in your presidential runs, and your present party affiliation remains ambivalent (you signed a loyalty pledge last year for your national campaign but you remain an independent in Vermont). Such a history withers your qualifications for imposing non-negotiables – especially since fruitful politics is a practical endeavor mandating compromise and reconciliation.  

But, of course, actual governance – the effort that builds schools, cleans drainage pipes, and collects trash – isn’t your style. As Barney Frank said of you four years ago: “His legislative record was to state the ideological position he took on the left, but with the exception of a few small things, he never got anything done.”

I think of you, the righteous purist, and I think of me, the evil villain. I’ve been a Democrat since the ’70’s, with a pause in the ‘90s when I was a Democratic-voting independent. I’ve sat on my local Democratic Town Committee; I was an alternate delegate at my party’s state convention; I did a short stint on the board for Democrats for Life before my health compelled me to resign; I’ve manned a slew of local and state environmental organizations.  

But I’m not pro-choice. Which means I’m a heretic, worthy of expulsion.  

We pro-life Democrats – also known as whole-lifers – are against abortion for the same reason we long to protect mothers, regulate guns, stem climate change, and abolish the death penalty. We’re consistently pro-life. We view all humanity as intrinsically sacred. We’re convinced that protecting life — including life in the womb — is far more consistent with the Democratic Party’s overall philosophy of befriending the helpless. We stand in the heritage of Hubert Humphrey, Robert Kennedy, Thomas Eagleton, Eunice and Sargent Shriver, Senator Harold Hughes of Iowa, Connecticut Governor Ella Grasso, and Jimmy Carter: All Democrats; all pro-life. We agree with Senator Ted Kennedy’s 1971 letter to a constituent, written before he switched his stance: “Wanted or unwanted, I believe that human life, even at its earliest stages, has certain rights which must be recognized–the right to be born, the right to love, the right to grow old.”

Some polls suggest that 29 percent of all registered Democrats identify themselves as pro-life while 44 percent support a ban on abortion after the first trimester. Many have been Democrats for decades. They volunteer to run for town councils and sewer commissions and planning boards and economic development committees. They coach little leaguers and spoon out food at soup kitchens and fill bags at clothing pantries. But you, a once-every-four-years Democrat, would kick out almost a third of the party because it’s sullied.  

We whole-life Democrats aren’t blind. We know we’re a minority and we know many pro-choicers are deeply humanitarian. We have no interest in vilifying those with whom we disagree, but we stand in awe of anyone who mandates purity while holding the party at arm’s length. Our jaws drop again when we remember your tepid support for our party’s 2016 presidential nominee. Many of your enthusiasts stayed home on election day and, possibly, contributed to Donald Trump’s victory.  

Fortunately, wise politicians see the necessity of coalitions — especially given America’s overall ambivalence to abortion. Nancy Pelosi said this in 2017: “This is the Democratic Party, not a rubber stamp party. I grew up in Baltimore, Little Italy, in a devout Catholic family. Most of those people, my family, my extended family, are not pro-choice. You think I’m kicking them out of the Democratic Party?” Amy Klobuchar said in February: “There are pro-life Democrats, and they are part of our party, and I think we need to build a big tent … I think we need to bring people in instead of shutting them out.”

Our colossal 2020 challenges compel us to see the wisdom of Pelosi and Klobuchar. Now is the time for coalition building, not purity tests.


Charles Redfern

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About Charles Redfern

Charles Redfern is a writer, activist, and clergyman living in Connecticut with his wife and family. He's currently writing two books, with more in his head.

View all posts by Charles Redfern


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