A Pro-Life Democrat Explains What That Means, Exactly

Photo: Courtesy of Terrisa Bukovinac.
Terrisa Bukovinac, 35, of San Francisco, identifies as a Democrat, feminist, and pro-life.

If any two political identifiers are at odds with one another, being “pro-life” and a “Democrat” seem to be. But a surprising number of people do occupy that implausible intersection; their signs said as much at last week’s Women’s March on Washington. They're returning to D.C. on Friday, this time alongside conservatives, anti-abortion Christians, and Kellyanne Conway at the March for Life.

According to Gallup polling from 2014, 28% of Democrats identified as "pro-life" — a noteworthy stat, given protecting a woman's access to safe and legal abortion is right there in the party's platform. Such voters reconcile this (kind of) by considering unborn babies — who may be nothing more than a fertilized egg — to be a marginalized group, just like people suffering police violence, gentrification, or the gender wage gap. They support women up until they want to make certain choices about their bodies, because someone else’s body could be in there, and that’s complicated.

For a close look at these views, we talked to Terrisa Bukovinac, 35, a pro-life Democrat (and atheist vegetarian) who lives in San Francisco. She works with local anti-abortion organizations, Secular Pro-Life and Pro-Life Future, but cautions she’s not speaking on their behalf. Before reading on, try to shrug off your preconceived notions: She never once mentions the Bible.


Let’s start with, how do you identify politically?
“I definitely identify as a progressive liberal. I’m a registered Democrat; I would say I’m a little left of that for the most part. In the [primary] election, I voted for Jill Stein, and then I voted for Hillary. I align with the Democratic platform, on every political issue other than abortion. Even when it comes down to contraceptives and other reproductive rights.

What issues frame that political identity for you?
“My concern, in general, is the dignity of human beings. That’s why I’m a progressive liberal: I’m very concerned about marginalized groups, and, to me, the unborn fall under a marginalized group. It concerns me that the right doesn’t seem very concerned about issues of police brutality. I believe strongly that racism is a huge part of our culture that needs to be addressed. And these are all reasons why I’m pro-life also; I extend that same philosophy of nonviolence and non-discrimination to a group of human beings that are dehumanized, marginalized, and oppressed in our culture. The unborn.”

How did you arrive at your pro-life views?

“When I was younger, I was kind of religious, but I was very pro-choice. I dated someone in my 20s that was pro-life, and he tried to convince me to be against abortion based on my sensitivity to animals — I’m a vegetarian. He was like, ‘Why don’t you care about unborn children?’ And, I’m like, ‘What unborn children? It’s just a clump of cells!’ He really went out of his way to humanize the unborn child for me. It just wasn’t a big concern to me; I thought it was more important that people were allowed to make their own decisions about abortion.

“Then, in my late-20s, I just couldn’t bring myself to believe in god or anything supernatural anymore. That’s what got me thinking again about abortion. I thought it was such an amazing thing that I exist now; I appreciated life in such a different way as an atheist. Abortion seemed a little more urgent for me, then; cutting off someone’s life at such a young age, before they reach consciousness and have this cognitive experience that I’m having. I started to consider what would make abortion justifiable, and realized I was having some really pro-life opinions.”

There’s been a lot of debate in the past week about whether you can be pro-life and a feminist. How do you reconcile that?
“Yes, you absolutely can be pro-life and a feminist. I am a pro-life feminist. The core tenets of feminism are equality, nonviolence, and non-discrimination. The pro-life position embraces these values and takes it one step further to include all human beings. Ultimately, I think the pro-choice position is ageist and ableist (saying an embryo is not a person since it doesn't have the ability to survive on its own or hasn't reached a certain gestational age), neither of which is compatible with these tenets.”


Photo: Courtesy of Terrisa Bukovinac.
Karen Rose, VP of Pro-Life Future of San Francisco (L); Terrisa Bukovinac, and Aimee Murphy, Executive Director of Life Matters Journal (L), at the San Francisco Women's March.

There was a lot of tension about whether anti-abortion people (or organizations) should be included in the Women’s March on Washington, and you marched in even more liberal San Francisco. What was your experience like?
“I went to the March for Life and then the Women’s March, with 10 to 15 other people carrying pro-life messaging, and people were totally curious about us there. We got a lot of high-fives and head nods, so our experience was absolutely positive. There was just a real feeling of solidarity with everyone who came there with a human rights agenda. We didn’t experience any negative interactions or feel remotely threatened.”

A pro-choice woman approached you to talk about how banning abortion could just make the procedure unsafe, and lead to women being harmed or killed. How do you respond to concerns like that?
“Certainly, it’s a concern. The last thing we want to see is women dying because they’re not able to procure a legal abortion. But I don’t think it justifies killing other human beings to prevent the deaths of other human beings. It’s just redistributing oppression, in my perspective.

So how would that work, if a bunch of women who would otherwise seek abortion, no longer have that option? How would they, hypothetically speaking, be lifted up by society, and more able to succeed than they feel they currently are?
"I would say just a lot more financial support, really, and health care as a right, equal pay, I would say, paid maternity leave; all the things that the feminist movement is fighting for, those things.

“We think a lot about the abolitionist movement in the times of slavery, when people argued, like, it’s just too complicated, we can’t just fit all these people into regular society, how will they fit in? And we are still struggling with racism today; we’re still struggling with how to magnify the voices of people of color. I’m not proposing it would be an easy task applying that to abortion, but it was still the right thing to do to free slaves! And that’s how we feel about abortion: we are not sure how it would work, but it is the right thing to do.”

Planned Parenthood is at risk of being defunded, even though it provides necessary services to women, including birth control, pap-smears, cancer screenings, STI prevention and testing. Where do you stand on that?
“We definitely want women to get the health care that they need. We definitely want free and safe access to birth control. As a liberal, I want all people to have health care as a right. But being a taxpayer, I just am uncomfortable funding an organization that is literally America’s largest abortion provider. We support federally qualified health care centers that give those exact same services. We don’t want to be offering the termination of lives as a way to rectify the position women are put in, which is real and extremely unequal and unjust.”

We see women as another victim of this oppressive society that says you have to become like a man in order to get ahead.

What is the position women are in?
“In many cases, women seek abortions because they don’t feel they have a choice. Socioeconomic reasons are the number one reason, also fears that they’ll lose their current relationship, fears about completing school, being able to compete in society in any meaningful way. I think it’s totally fine if you want to live your life without children. I don’t have children; I’m not demonizing that choice. But women who do have children, we know, are at an economic disadvantage. It’s much harder to compete in our male-dominated, patriarchal society if you have quote-unquote burdens like that.

“So if we’re addressing the horror of abortion, we need to address the situations that make a woman feel like abortion is the only way she’ll be able to continue on. As Democrats, we want to give them every opportunity to thrive, inform them of their Title IX rights, and provide for women just like we want to provide for every human being in this country.”

And so your goal would be to make abortion…
“Unthinkable.”

Would you say you’re zero-tolerance?
“There are certainly situations where the majority of pro-lifers think abortion is permissible, and those are if the mother’s life is in danger and in cases of rape, for reasons of bodily autonomy. Because if a woman didn’t even consent to the sexual situation that [got her pregnant and] put another person’s life at risk, while it is a tragedy to potentially lose that life, we feel that is justifiable. Otherwise, it would be in a woman’s best efforts to avoid the situation that causes pregnancy in the first place.”

There’s no room, in that view, to trust a woman’s making the best choice for her life?
“No, allowing it to be just the woman’s choice based just on how she feels about it, we don’t feel that that’s ethical, either.”

And then in the case of rape, would you have a review board? How would women access a “justifiable” abortion?
“I don’t have all the answers of how the entire society would work out, but in general if a woman says that she’s raped, I think our best efforts should be made to believe her, and to take it from there.”

Have you ever voted Republican or considered moving parties because of Democrats' stance on choice?
“I have voted Republican before, but ultimately I believe social justice can only be achieved through a more socialist-style system. I think the Democrats are better positioned to address a range of issues related to inequality. I’d rather work within that framework to end abortion rather than work in a conservative framework trying to end racism, sexism, classism, xenophobia, homophobia, and so forth.”

“I oppose the death penalty; I oppose unjust war; all kinds of things that I think Republicans are willing to sacrifice human lives for, so that’s just not consistent with my beliefs. Seeing Republican legislators who claim to be for life, that say, ‘We don’t want to have paid maternity leave,’ that’s absolutely ridiculous. We need things that will put women at a less disadvantaged position.”

So that’s kind of the crux of why you’re a Democrat, supporting social programs that address inequality.
“The crux of why I’m a Democrat is that I believe in the dignity of every human being. I believe that every human person should have a chance, should not be a victim of violence, should not have their lives taken from them prematurely. And this is why I oppose police brutality — any type of inequality — and abortion is just one of those things that contribute to inequality.”

Photo: Courtesy of Terrisa Bukovinac.
Terrisa Bukovinac (L) and Aimee Murphy at the San Francisco Women's March.

What do you think the Democratic party gets wrong about abortion?
“Democrats, when talking about abortion, almost never acknowledge the unborn child. They talk about, ‘my body, my choice,’ a woman’s right to make her own decisions, but they avoid ever talking about fetal life. So it leaves pro-lifers like, ‘What about the baby?’ And I can’t support Democrats’ calls for ending the Hyde Amendment, support for late-term abortion, and any efforts to keep abortion legal.

“But I think also the left sees the pro-life movement as a caricature of itself, and mostly men, mostly conservative, mostly gay-hating; I’m not saying that they’re way off, but they’re certainly not across the board.”

So what does the movement look like?
“I’ve worked in the movement for a long time, and the majority of people are women, many of whom are post-abortive, so the idea that pro-lifers want to punish women for having abortion — I know Trump said that, but that is definitely not the view of the pro-life movement. That would pretty much eliminate half of our force. We see women as another victim of this oppressive society that says you have to become like a man in order to get ahead.”

How do you feel about the prospects of the Trump administration?
“Dubious. Trump's rhetoric and behavior thus far is incompatible with non-discrimination and nonviolence; I have a lot of concern for the futures of women, people of color, undocumented immigrants, refugees, the poor, the uninsured, the disabled, and the LGBTQ community. I'm very happy to see him take steps toward defunding Planned Parenthood and [reinstating the Mexico City policy] to save unborn children, but if we aren't helping women, then we are just redistributing the oppression. And we aren't sure about the long term effects of these policies being tied to a Trump administration. Optics are important.”