Tod Cooper
Tod Cooper

This is the first in a two-part series on the mechanisms that keep pro-choice politics strong in Oregon.

Another session of the state Legislature has ended, and Oregon maintains some of the most unhindered abortion policies in the nation. The mechanisms that sustain such controversial laws include inordinate power from zealous activists and a cold shoulder toward pro-life progressives.

The 2021 Oregon legislative session was typical when it comes to abortion. Committees refused a public hearing for a bill that would have protected infants born alive after failed abortions. Pro-life lawmakers used a mechanism to force a floor vote, which failed quietly. The same process snuffed a bill that would have required a gestational age analysis before abortions to gauge how much pain the unborn child would feel.

Meanwhile, passed over the objections of pro-life lawmakers were bills that create a right to taxpayer funded abortion, that provide more abortions to incarcerated women, and that stall the growth of Catholic health care providers.

Out of sync

Many Democratic voters in Oregon support their party’s policies on assistance for the poor, the death penalty, health care, the environment, gun regulation, voting, labor, education and immigration — while also wanting restrictions on abortion. They get no welcome from Democratic leaders.

One longtime Catholic Oregon Democrat who embraces what she calls “the consistent ethic of life” spoke up against abortion at a meeting in 1992 and was sidelined from leadership. Preferring anonymity, she now works on the topic quietly, afraid of “literally being kicked out of the party.”

When it comes to abortion, Oregon’s Democratic officials are out of sync with a significant portion of their party’s electorate. Gallup polls show that the percentage of U.S. Democrats who believe abortion should be legal under any circumstance grew to just 49% by 2020.

Oregon may have a somewhat higher percentage of pro-choice supporters than the nation overall, but that still leaves a significant minority of local Democrats who differ with Oregon law, which allows abortions up to birth with no restrictions.

Most Oregon voters in the past decade have supported public funding for abortion, but not by giant margins. In 2018, 36% voted to stop the flow of money. The math makes it clear that many Democrats, given the chance, would opt for candidates who favor at least some curbs on abortion.

‘Cut at the start’

Oregon’s pro-choice politics are disproportionate for several reasons, starting with who gets encouraged to run for office in the state.

“Pro-life Democratic candidates don’t exist for the Oregon Democratic Party,” said Todd Cooper, a close aide to Archbishop Alexander Sample and lead staffer for the Oregon Catholic Conference, which represents Oregon Catholics in public policy matters. “Parties choose who gets elected and pro-life Democrats in Oregon are cut at the start.”

Cooper has observed that campaign money follows candidates chosen by the party. But more important, he said, is who gets endorsed by powerful abortion rights groups like NARAL Pro-Choice Oregon and Planned Parenthood.

“It’s a tremendous platform,” said Cooper, who believes pro-choice advocates gain most of their ground by convincing voters that abortion is health care, a falsehood in his thinking.

Roger Martin, a former Republican lawmaker who now lobbies for the church at the Oregon Capitol, considers NARAL Pro-Choice Oregon and Planned Parenthood the twin Goliaths of Oregon politics. “They are tremendously influential,” he said. Neither organization responded to interview requests.

Pro-choice candidates also receive major contributions from out-of-state donors at much higher rates than pro-life candidates, Martin said.

The power of Our Oregon

One of the post powerful groups in state politics is Our Oregon, which works to get Democrats elected. On the Our Oregon board of directors are Mary Nolan, former executive director of Planned Parenthood Advocates of Oregon, and Becca Uherbelau, current chair of Planned Parenthood Advocates of Oregon.

Lois Anderson, executive director of Oregon Right to Life, said the Our Oregon board has an outsized influence in deciding which Democrats get to run. Unlike political action committees, Our Oregon does not need to report what contributions it receives.

“That has made it difficult for anyone who wants to move forward on the Democratic side who is pro-life,” Anderson said.

Another organization, Emerge Oregon, recruits, trains and supports women candidates for the Democratic party. Emerge Oregon does not take in pro-lifers.

Neither Our Oregon nor Emerge Oregon responded to requests for an interview.

The biggest money in Oregon politics is from public employee unions, Anderson said, accusing the unions of “walking hand in hand” with abortion rights groups.

“Given an even playing field, pro-life Democrats could win,” Anderson said. “But they are kept out by early screening.” 

Sen. Elizabeth Steiner Hayward gives a thumbs up in the Oregon Senate in 2018. A physician, Steiner Hayward is one of the staunchest pro-choice legislators in the state and like many lawmakers gets support from NARAL Pro-Choice Oregon. (Office of Sen. Elizabeth Steiner Hayward)

Who gets funding

NARAL Pro-Choice Oregon doesn’t hand out large individual campaign donations. In the 2020 election, only $1,000 went to the organization’s top recipient, Sen. Elizabeth Steiner Hayward, who represents parts of Northwest Portland and Beaverton.

Steiner Hayward bristles at the notion that her votes are influenced by campaign contributions. She thinks finance and endorsements follow the beliefs of voters.

Steiner Hayward said abortion is rarely a yes or no question in politics, adding that laws can restrict the practice or smooth the way. She contends that most Democrats who find abortion troubling still want it to be safe and legal, even if there are restrictions.

She said that in her Jewish tradition it is a religious tenet to protect mothers; in her interpretation, laws allowing safe abortion are “rooted in faith.”

Also receiving a $1,000 campaign contribution and an endorsement from NARAL Pro-choice Oregon last year was new Oregon Secretary of State Shemia Fagan. The official in charge of Oregon elections, Fagan did not respond to requests for an interview. The same goes for Sen. Deb Patterson of Salem, who took in $500 from NARAL for last year’s campaign.

The future of pro-choice sentiment in Oregon could be planted at public schools, so organizations like NARAL Pro-Choice Oregon make endorsements and give donations to school board candidates. Top recipient in 2021 was Kathy Wai, who received the NARAL nod and $1,650 in a reelection bid for the Clackamas School board. Wai did not respond to a request for an interview.

In the Centennial School District in Gresham and Southeast Portland, Erica Fuller rode a NARAL endorsement to a win over 30-year incumbent Rod Boettcher. Neither responded to requests for interviews.

‘Not everyone thinks the same’

“The biggest problem is just how much the DNC leadership on the West Coast is against any pro pro-life voice whatsoever,” said Dan Green, spokesman for Democrats for Life of America. Green notes openness to discussion in other parts of the country. But on the West Coast, Green laments, being pro-choice has become one of the defining characteristics of a progressive.

Green said that there are many sections of the West where people are pro-life. “It’s important for Democratic leaders to know not everyone thinks the same,” he said.

The Oregon Democratic Party and its chairman Brad Martin did not respond to repeated requests for interviews.

“There are a number of Democratic voters who, if they are not against abortion, are in favor of making abortion hard. But abortion is not one of their top issues,” said Jim Moore, a political scientist at Pacific University in Forest Grove.

Moore thinks that abortion may be a significant cause behind the 2020 shift of Hispanic voters nationwide from Democrats to Republicans. But he sees no movement now that could knock a hole in Oregon’s pro-choice wall. Moore noted that even when Republicans controlled the Oregon Legislature in the 1990s, the pro-choice cause held firm.

Part 2 includes interviews with former Oregon Democrats who left the party over abortion.