ABORTION AND THE DEMOCRATS….A few days ago, I received an email from a reader who had attended a John Kerry rally over the weekend in Erie, Pennsylvania. He and his wife took their two children to the event, and they also brought along a homemade sign to cheer on their candidate and to demonstrate the breadth of Kerry’s support. The sign bobbed along in the crowd until it was spotted by some Kerry workers, who hurried over and asked them to put it down, claiming that only “sanctioned” signs were allowed. What was the unsanctioned message on the sign? “Democrats for Life”.

The point of the sign, the reader wanted me to know, was not to spark confrontation but to indicate that Kerry has pro-life supporters. He won’t have many, though, if his campaign continues to make the same mistakes the national party has been making for the past few decades, refusing to make any room in their otherwise “Big Tent” for those who oppose abortion.

Talk to a group of moderate pro-life voters and you will find that many of them trace their discomfort with the Democratic Party to 1992, when then-Pennsylvania Governor Bob Casey was denied a chance to address the Democratic Convention, a decision he claimed was based on his pro-life views. Convention planners disputed this explanation, but it hardly mattered — the perception that the Democratic Party will not tolerate pro-life views was set in stone. And it’s hardly unfounded. “We don’t need their support,” is one of the claims I hear most often within the party. Oh, really? The last time I checked, Democrats didn’t control the White House, Senate, or House of Representatives. They need every darn vote they can get. What’s more, it wouldn’t cost them much, if anything.

Because these voters aren’t expecting the party to change its platform, to suddenly oppose abortion rights, or toss the choice groups to the curb. These are people who are willing to support Democratic candidates despite differing views on abortion. All they’re looking for is some acknowledgement that it’s possible to be a good person and a good Democrat and have questions about abortion. That individuals can be sincerely troubled by abortion.

This is not a popular position. Since the mid-1970s, the number of pro-life Democrats in the House has dropped from over 100 to less than 30. The recently retired Democratic Whip ? David Bonior ? was pro-life and half of the Senate Democratic Leadership flirts with pro-life votes, yet the party not only refuses to respect the belief that there can be ambiguity on this issue, but insists that there is none. And that to believe otherwise is to be a heartless, right-wing reactionary.

Why the hard-line rhetoric in the Democratic Party? The power and influence of the choice groups within the party is the biggest factor. A friend of mine who works for a state attorney general told me about a telling incident a little while ago. His boss was prosecuting a case against some pro-life activists and had to appoint a lawyer to represent the other side. Soon after, my friend received a call from someone he knew at one of the choice groups, expressing their displeasure because the attorney general had appointed a good lawyer to represent the pro-lifers. This was a very serious problem, the choice activist told him, and they probably wouldn’t be able to support his boss in the next election. Why? Not because the attorney general took the side of the pro-lifers, not because he had altered his own position one bit, but because he had the gall to appoint a decent lawyer to serve as his opposition in the case.

Look, I’m pro-choice. I believe the choice groups need to be out there yelling and screaming and holding the line. But Democratic politicians don’t have to be cowed by them. If Kerry acknowledged the tension many voters feel about the issue of abortion, sure, the choice groups would howl. But so what? He wouldn’t be altering his policy positions. He wouldn’t be forcing changes to the party platform. He would, however, be sending a signal that people with differing views on a very difficult, controversial issue are welcome in the ranks of his supporters. What are pro-choicers going to do, withdraw funding from Democratic candidates? And support exactly who instead? Let them howl. It’s their job. But Kerry and others shouldn’t buckle at the first sign of a yelp.

Amy Sullivan

Amy Sullivan is a Chicago-based journalist who has written about religion, politics, and culture as a senior editor for Time, National Journal, and Yahoo. She was an editor at the Washington Monthly from 2004 to 2006.