It may seem like a long time ago now, but for one brief, shining moment the pro-abortion hegemony over the Democratic Party showed signs of cracking. Shortly after the 2004 presidential election—at least the fourth in which exit-poll data showed the Democrats’ abortion position was a net vote loser—liberal activists gathered at AFLCIO headquarters to lick their wounds.
Senator John Kerry, the defeated presidential nominee and self-described Catholic who rejects the Church’s prolife teachings, came to thank the crowd for its support—and to sound one discordant note.
In response to a question by the head of EMILY’s List, a political network of pro-choice Democratic women, Kerry said that their party needed to moderate its pro-abortion image. Not only did Democrats need to make clear that they don’t “like” abortion, Kerry argued that Democrats should welcome more pro-life candidates into the party.
“There was a gasp in the room,” NARAL Pro-Choice America President Nancy Keenan told Newsweek. But not all Democrats were so easily flustered. Democratic strategist Donna Brazile, who served as Al Gore’s campaign manager during the 2000 presidential election, essentially seconded Kerry’s verdict. “All these issues that put us into the extreme and not the mainstream really hurt us with the heartland of the country,” she told the New York Times in December 2004. “Even I have trouble explaining to my family that we are not about killing babies.”
Senate Democrats elected Nevada Senator Harry Reid to lead their caucus, even though he had voted against a resolution affirming Roe v. Wade and described himself as an opponent of abortion except in cases of rape, incest, and when the mother’s life is in danger. Reid and his pro-choice House counterpart Nancy Pelosi both encouraged a pro-life Democrat, former Congressman Tim Roemer, to run for chairman of the Democratic National Committee. Senator Charles Schumer of New York, then chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, worked to recruit pro-life candidates to run for Senate in Pennsylvania and Rhode Island, although he is a staunch supporter of legal abortion himself.
Now the pro-life Democrats’ moment seems to be passing, and not just because the resounding 2008 victory of fervently pro-abortion Barack Obama makes opportunistic concerns about their party’s abortion image seem passé. Pro-life Democrats did relatively little with their newfound leverage when skittish party leaders were in the mood to listen. They were grateful when token pro-lifers received the party’s stamp of approval and they accepted revised platform language that was as unequivocal as ever in its support for the Roe abortion regime.
Pro-life Democrats failed to nudge their party’s position on abortion in an even marginally more pro-life direction— by rejecting partial-birth abortion, for instance—or to win approval of a “tolerance clause” acknowledging the existence of abortion opponents within the Democratic Party. Instead, they got Democratic support for reducing “the need for abortion” by increasing use of contraceptives and for wording to the effect that the party also “strongly supports a woman’s decision to have a child.” Jim Wallis, a liberal evangelical who backed the pro-life Democrats’ efforts, told ABC News, “The language in the platform is a real step forward.”
“But highlighting this language only begs the question,” Daniel Allott wrote at the time in The American Spectator. “Did the Democratic Party previously oppose a woman’s decision to have a child?” To ask the question is to reveal the party’s new moderation on abortion as crumbs tossed at pro-lifers from the Democratic platform committee’s table.
Pro-life Democrats nevertheless pronounced themselves pleased by a platform plank that “unequivocally supports” taxpayer funding of abortion—in the form of “a woman’s right to choose a safe and legal abortion, regardless of ability to pay”—due to vague assurances of increased welfare spending for women who keep their babies.
If this was the best pro-life Democrats could do when leaders of their party were worried about the Catholic vote in 2008, it is hard to imagine them more effectively speaking truth to power in Obama’s moment of triumph. Yet in all-Democratic Washington, pro-lifers need all the Democratic allies they can get. Unfortunately, not all of these allies are equally reliable.
Only two Democratic senators vote with pro-lifers on most issues. In the House, that number is closer to 25. Just 16 House Democrats voted against expanding taxpayer-funded embryonic stem-cell research, though 31 voted against legislation that would allow cloning human embryos so they can be destroyed for research purposes. When Jimmy Carter was president, pro-life Democrats could claim more than 100 members of Congress.
The most famous of these pro-life Democrats is Senator Bob Casey, Jr. of Pennsylvania. He hails from a family that is well respected by both Democrats and pro-lifers. His father and namesake was a pro-life stalwart as governor of Pennsylvania from 1987 to 1995. Robert P. Casey, Sr. won the enactment of the pro-life laws that were later challenged (most unsuccessfully) in the Supreme Court’s 1992 Planned Parenthood v. Casey ruling. Though that decision was a disappointment to pro-lifers because it upheld Roe, it also significantly expanded the number of abortion restrictions that consistently pass judicial muster.
Casey was memorably denied a speaking slot at that year’s Democratic National Convention because he wanted to challenge his party’s stance on abortion. Bob Casey, Jr. generally shares his father’s pro-life views, but has also taken steps to avoid falling from favor with party leaders. Not only did the younger Casey endorse Obama at a key moment in his campaign and stump for him in Pennsylvania, before that, in 2006, he voted to reverse the Mexico City Policy, which prohibited taxpayer funds from being used to support family-planning groups that perform or promote abortions overseas.
The defense offered by Casey’s spokesman in an interview shortly afterward was twofold. First, he told reporter David Freddoso that the “amendment [Casey] voted for would not allow public funding of abortion, which is illegal.” Second, the spokesman contended that “providing support for family planning will reduce the number of abortions.” While it is true that these taxpayer funds won’t directly subsidize abortions, it will free up money for the family-planning organizations to perform, refer, and lobby for abortion. It’s also unlikely that such organizations will have much interest in reducing the number of abortions.
Casey’s vote did not lead to the repeal of the Mexico City Policy because the pro-life president he opposed threatened to veto the bill. But the policy is no longer in effect in any event, because the man Casey supported in the subsequent presidential election took office and revoked it by executive order.
Representative Jim Langevin of Rhode Island was to be Chuck Schumer’s other pro-life Democrat in 2006, except he decided against a challenge to pro abortion Republican Senator Lincoln Chafee that year. Langevin sits on an advisory board of Democrats for Life of America, but he dissents on embryonic stem-cell research. Paralyzed in an accident as a teenager, he believes research destroying human embryos would help people in his condition and has voted to force pro-life taxpayers to subsidize such practices. In the last Congress, he took a step further and voted for cloning.
Langevin also voted to reverse the Mexico City Policy and to fund Planned Parenthood, the nation’s largest abortion provider. Nevertheless, he has voted with the National Right to Life Committee about 73 percent of the time and has supported NARAL’s positions just 10 percent of the time. He is most reliable on votes to restrict abortion, least dependable on votes involving taxpayer subsidies.
Neither Casey nor Langevin has gone as far as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Reid describes himself as an abortion opponent and has cast many pro-life votes over the years. But as he has climbed the ladder to higher Democratic leadership positions, his commitment to the pro-life cause has waned. Though his ratings have fluctuated over the years, Reid went from voting with NARAL 20 percent of the time in 1997 to supporting its positions 100 percent of the time in 2007. Reid’s National Right to Life score tumbled from 63 percent in 1999 to 28 percent in 2007-2008.
In 11 key votes since becoming the Senate Democratic leader, Reid voted against the pro-life side eight times. He continues to vote with pro-lifers on parental-notification laws and keeping the Indian Health Service from funding abortions. On embryo-destructive research, the Mexico City Policy, federal funding for Planned Parenthood, and even State Children’s Health Insurance Program coverage for unborn children, he has voted the other way. Reid’s Prevention First Act, which promotes contraception and was originally cosponsored with Hillary Clinton, seems designed to divide pro-lifers politically rather than address their concerns. (In late March, Reid told The Weekly Standard that he could support a national health-care bill that covers abortion.)
Senator Mark Pryor of Arkansas takes a position similar to Reid’s: he describes himself as pro-life with exceptions for rape, incest, and the mother’s life, but voted 100 percent of the time with NARAL in 2007 and 14 percent of the time with National Right to Life in 2007-2008. Representative Tim Ryan of Ohio, who has been more vocal about his abortion views, is an even more jarring case: he didn’t vote with the National Right to Life Committee a single time in the last Congress, despite doing so 73 percent of the time in 2003-2004 (he received a 100 percent rating from Democrats for Life that same year). His NARAL rating skyrocketed from just 10 percent in 2003 to 100 percent in 2007.
Ryan has nevertheless been active in pro-life Democratic circles, seeking to find “common ground” on abortion. Yet the Youngstown-area Democrat’s main initiative is the Reducing the Need for Abortions and Supporting Parents Act, which divides pro-lifers because of its focus on contraception and is a collaborative effort with the ardently pro-choice Representative Nancy DeLauro of Connecticut. The bill doesn’t have a single Republican cosponsor. Party of Death author Ramesh Ponnuru is particularly scathing in his assessment of Ryan: “Nowadays his allegedly ‘pro-life’ advocacy consists entirely of working with Congresswoman DeLauro to funnel more money to abortion providers.”
Too many pro-life Democrats have been ensnared by the delusion that their main priority should be working with supporters, and even providers, of abortion to reduce the abortion rate. While the logic of pro-lifers for Planned Parenthood might make even Doug Kmiec blush, the data isn’t much kinder to it. When making the case for expanded Medicaid eligibility for free contraception, Adam Thomas and Isabel Sawhil of the Brookings Institution concluded their preferred policy “would reduce the annual number of abortions to unmarried women by nearly 12,000.”
Even this optimistic projection must be viewed in the context of approximately 1.3 million abortions a year. Given that Roe is believed to have increased abortion rates by 50 percent, this “abortion-reduction” strategy may be less effective than advertised. Similar problems have emerged with a study by Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, which supposedly found that increased welfare spending did more to reduce the abortion rate than pro-life legislation.
Political scientist Michael J. New reported that “after the original study was released, the authors discovered that they used incorrect abortion data for the years following 1997.” They also removed abortion data from states that had been inconsistent over time. “The new version provides evidence that welfare policy has no more than a marginal effect on the incidence of abortion,” New continued. “In fact, the new regression results indicate that none of the three welfare policies which the authors previously argued were effective tools for reducing the incidence of abortion have a substantial abortion reducing effect.”
Meanwhile, the proliferation of statelevel and federal abortion restrictions that began in the 1990s coincided with the number of abortions falling in 12 of the last 14 years and a 21 percent decrease in total abortions. So it turns out that the original pro-life pursuit of expanding legal protection for unborn children may do more to reduce abortions than the “abortion-reduction” strategy that has tempted many pro-life Democrats, even when pro-lifers fall short of their goal of overturning Roe v. Wade.
Nevertheless, many pro-life Democrats do yeoman’s work in the fight for life. Representative Heath Shuler of North Carolina ran as a pro-life candidate in 2006. He earned a zero from NARAL in 2007 and an 85 from National Right to Life in the last Congress. In this one, Shuler has worked on a genuinely bipartisan initiative to protect the Hyde Amendment—which forbids taxpayer funding of elective abortions—and other pro-life riders in appropriations bills. Shuler enjoys the backing of Representative Bart Stupak of Michigan, the Democratic co-chairman of the House Pro-Life Caucus.
Representative Lincoln Davis of Tennessee has never scored higher than a zero in NARAL’s annual ratings and his 83 from National Right to Life during the last Congress is lower than his usual 100. And it was particularly encouraging that Democrats for Life issued a forthright statement opposing the Obama administration’s reversal of the Bush policy on taxpayer-subsidized embryo-destructive research: “DFLA is against President Obama’s decision, period.”
The challenge for pro-life Democrats is to remain steadfastly opposed to their leaders’ assaults on the sanctity of innocent human life without being co-opted by those leaders through cosmetic and rhetorical changes. “If somebody is willing to stick with us who is pro-life, that means they are the right kind of pro life person,” former Vermont governor and Planned Parenthood doctor Howard Dean said, before dispatching a pro-life candidate to become chairman of the Democratic National Committee. Dean’s “right kind of pro-life person” is not going to be the kind that can overcome the burgeoning pro-abortion consensus in Washington.
Even imperfect pro-life Democrats need encouragement. The pressure they face from their party’s base and predominantly pro-abortion donors is overwhelming. Those who have resisted rather than recanted deserve the pro-life movement’s respect, as well as its thanks for the many victories that could never have been won by Republican votes alone. Now these Democrats will be more important than ever.
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!