Among high-profile Democrats, Governor Jerry Brown of California stands out for his relative benevolence toward the pro-life cause. He has dared to refer to abortion in plain language—“the killing of the unborn”—and has called it “crazy.” He has supported and signed state legislation to protect the employment rights of women who are pregnant or have recently given birth. Democrats should abandon the idea of a pro-abortion-rights “litmus test,” he recently argued, taking sides in a contentious debate among party leaders: He thinks the party should welcome pro-lifers. Only last month, he vetoed a bill that would have constricted the religious-liberty and conscience rights of employers opposed to abortion.
Critics will object that Brown has never declared for the pro-life cause loud and clear. They’re right that he hasn’t. If he had, however, he would have stood a good chance of being excommunicated from his party long ago, or of suffering a decline in his stature among his peers, reducing the impact of his advocacy for pro-life ideas. He could have switched parties, you counter—he’s a maverick, after all, and Californians love him for that. Can’t you imagine him getting elected as “a Left conservative,” which is how Norman Mailer once characterized himself? Can’t you imagine Brown as a Republican of, say, the crunchy-conservative school? A proponent, across the board—on the economy, the environment, the sanctity of life—of a political philosophy that on the global stage is represented most visibly by Catholic social teaching?
I can imagine it. That is not, alas, the road that Jerry Brown decided to travel. He remained a Democrat. In the record of his long career in politics, we can, however, discern the outline of what a better pro-life Democrat might look like. He serves as an imperfect model of that Democrat, at a time when no one any closer to perfection in that role has been willing to give it a try.
A figure much like Brown in this regard was Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the Democratic senator from New York (1977–2001), a liberal but in sympathetic conversation with conservatives. He usually voted with his party on abortion but didn’t talk about it, conspicuously refraining from cheerleading for the pro-choice movement. At one point he complained to abortion-rights activists that they were “ruining the party” with their “insistence on abortion.” In 1996 he broke ranks to vote to override President Clinton’s veto of the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act, explaining that the procedure in question was “just too close to infanticide.”
Prolifers had reason to hope that Moynihan would someday join their ranks—and then to be disappointed in him when he didn’t. He was hardly the only Democrat ever to have betrayed ambivalence in support of his party’s position on abortion. We could condemn him for lacking the courage of his conviction, assuming that he was “personally” pro-life, but we would do better to recognize the ambivalence as an opportunity, an opening to a conversation.
It would be destructive, of itself as well as of the nation at large, for the pro-life movement to aim to reduce the United States to a one-party state. It should aspire instead to win the abortion debate by reconfiguring the anti-abortion cause as bipartisan.
It would be in the interest of the Democratic Party as well as of the unborn. To those outside the bubble of Democratic insiderdom, nothing could be more obvious than the party’s need to discontinue its line that “abortion is a right and we will fight to the death to defend it.” To be a national party—and to be a party committed to justice for all, though that’s a bigger question—the Democrats must transition to the idea that “abortion is a tragedy and here is what we will do to reduce its incidence.”
Below is a chronology of Jerry Brown’s words and decisions with respect to abortion:
February 10, 1988: In an interview with the Catholic News Service, Brown relates his experience as a volunteer at Mother Teresa’s home for the dying in Calcutta. It gave him “a different perspective on the whole question of abortion,” he says. “The killing of the unborn is crazy.” It makes no sense for anyone who, like the Missionaries of Charity, is dedicated to “protecting the lives of the suffering with not as high a quality of life as a three-month fetus that is healthy and has potential.” That America “and Europe see the need to kill so many of the unborn does not seem to be justified. It’s just that we’ve organized our society to be anti-life.”
October 6, 2011: Governor Brown signs four bills—Senate Bill 222, Assembly Bill 210, Senate Bill 299, Senate Bill 502—“to protect pregnant women and new mothers.” The press release from his office continues:
The bills ensure maternity services are covered by health insurers and new mothers can no longer lose their health insurance as a result of taking maternity leave.
“Healthy mothers mean healthy babies. I want the next generation of Californians to get the best possible start in life. The bills I signed today require that insurance companies cover maternity services for pregnant women,” said Governor Brown, “and ensures that mothers who take maternity leave no longer have to fear losing their medical coverage.”
October 9, 2011: Governor Brown signs Assembly Bill 592, which reinforces protections that SB 299 (see above) ensures for women during pregnancy and up to four months after childbirth.
August 13, 2013: Governor Brown vetoes Assembly Bill 926, which, in his summation, “would legalize the payment of money in exchange for a woman submitting to invasive procedures to stimulate, extract and harvest her eggs for scientific research.” He continues:
The questions raised here are not simple; they touch matters that are both personal and philosophical.
In medical procedures of this kind, genuinely informed consent is difficult because the long-term risks are not adequately known. Putting thousands of dollars on the table only compounds the problem.
Six years ago the Legislature, by near unanimity, enacted the prohibition that this bill now seeks to reverse. After careful review of the materials which both supporters and opponents submitted, I do not find sufficient reason to change course.
I am returning this bill without my signature.
His punch line he places as the lede, the first sentence of this letter to the members of the California State Assembly: “Not everything in life is for sale nor should it be.”
October 9, 2013: Governor Brown signs Assembly Bill 154, which allows nurses to perform abortions during the first trimester of a woman’s pregnancy. Neither Brown nor his office offered comment. If you’re keeping score, subtract points from the case that Brown is pro-life-friendly.
October 9, 2015: Governor Brown signs Assembly Bill 775, the Reproductive Fact Act, which requires even pro-life pregnancy centers to inform clients how they can obtain low-cost or free abortion, in addition to contraception and prenatal care. Neither Brown nor his office ever commented, at least to my knowledge. Legal challenges to the law quickly ensued, and on Monday the Supreme Court accepted to hear a case against it.
August 6, 2017: On Meet the Press, Governor Brown took sides in a heated debate among Democratic leaders, telling Chuck Todd that the party should welcome pro-lifers and not impose a litmus test on abortion:
On the abortion issue, it wasn’t very long ago that a number of Catholic Democrats were opposed to abortion. So the fact that somebody believes today what most people believed 50 years ago should not be the basis for their exclusion. . . .
America is not one place. Alabama is not San Francisco or California. To come together, as a great Jesuit once said, everything that rises converges. So we have to rise above some of our most cherished ideological inclinations and find a common basis. And the economy has often been that common basis, or security in the world could be a part of that common basis. But you can’t let these hot-button issues that work great in particular congressional districts, one way or the other, to be the guiding light for a national party that covers a very wide spectrum of belief. . . .
The litmus test should be intelligence—caring about, as Harry Truman or Roosevelt used to call it, the common man. We’re not going to get everybody on board. And I’m sorry, but running in San Francisco is not like running in Tulare County or Modoc, California, much less Mobile, Alabama.
October 15, 2017: Governor Brown vetoes Assembly 569, which would have prohibited an employer from firing a worker whose “reproductive health decisions” conflicted with the aims or principles, for example, of a Catholic school or hospital or of a crisis-pregnancy center. The “ministerial exception” stipulated in the bill was narrow and would have constricted the religious-liberty and conscience rights of organizations opposed to abortion either explicitly or in principle. In his brief letter to the Assembly, Brown explains that the worker protections that the bill’s sponsors sought to establish are already ensured under existing law, whose exception for religious institutions he notes.
Connect the dots. Brown’s record on abortion is mixed. Be grateful for the good he has said and done. Keep in mind the wise counsel whose most visible proponent in the pro-life movement has been the National Right to Life Committee: Hold on to your ideals, but do not dismiss the proximate good that, while it falls short of them, approaches them nonetheless.