As the Democratic Party attempts to regain its identity before the 2004 presidential campaign, one of the main issues of contention within the party is the issue of abortion rights. On Thursday, the U.S. Senate voted to ban the intact dilation and extraction procedure, commonly known as partial-birth abortion.

Pending approval by the House, President Bush will sign this bill into law. Wasting no time after the Senate voted for the bill, Bush stood on his soapbox before the American people and proclaimed this bill “an important step toward building a culture of life in America.” As to this culture of life, he called the procedure nothing more than an “abhorrent procedure that offends human dignity.”

Over the past few months, Bush has systematically placed the abortion issue back on the negotiating table, a fact many Americans have failed to notice as international issues have trumped the domestic agenda. As far back as January, Bush declared National Sanctity of Life Day as a show of support to the anti-abortion lobby.

Within the Democratic Party, there are many lines of debate as to whether partial-birth abortions should be banned. Sixteen Democrats voted in favor of the bill and 27 opposed. There were two noticeable abstentions from the abortion vote: Sens. John Edwards (D) of North Carolina and John Kerry (D) of Massachusetts, two of whom are considered front runners for the Democratic nomination and one more who is still waiting for the findings of his exploratory committee.

Where were they when this matter came to a vote? According to their spokesmen, Kerry and Edwards were out on the campaign trail raising money and garnering support for their bids. Their spokesmen both assured the American public that they would have voted against the bill.

At a time when leading Democrats such as Sen. Tom Daschle of South Dakota vote in support of the ban and other leading Democrats such as Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut vote against the ban, are assurances from their campaign managers enough? Or should we require our potential leaders to make their actual opinions count and stand up in the face of Bush’s challenge?

It is the responsibility of the president to stand with their convictions. On an issue as controversial and as integral to the Democratic platform as women’s reproductive rights, the future Democratic candidate has the responsibility to be on the Senate floor for such an important vote. The identity of the next president gathers even more importance when one remembers that there will probably be two seats on the Supreme Court available.

Bush’s presidency has shown the influence of the executive branch in defining the nature of the abortion debate. With division currently ruling the party elite, it becomes important that a presidential candidate is candid about their positions and willing to take stands that may be politically risky.

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