Is there still such a thing as a pro-life Democrat?
Believe it or not, this was supposed to be the year of the pro-life Democrat. Tired of taking a beating in culturally conservative parts of the country, in 2006 and 2008 national Democratic leaders actively recruited candidates who disagreed with the party’s platform on abortion. A number of them won; an older member of their ranks had been elected Senate majority leader. Pro-life Democrats held the fate of health care reform in their hands.
We all know how that turned out. Federal legislation passed without the abortion language pro-life Democrats had insisted upon. Those pro-life Democrats nevertheless supplied the health care bill’s winning margin in the House. The putatively pro-life Senate majority leader helped kill that language in the upper chamber. Now dedicated abortion foes are asking whether the phrase “pro-life Democrat” is an oxymoron.
The political action committee for Indiana Right to Life announced it was going to stop endorsing Democrats after the state’s three pro-life Democratic congressmen all voted for the health care bill. “Our leadership anguished over this decision,” said PAC chairman Mike Fichter. “Had Democrats like Brad Ellsworth held firm in opposing federal funding for abortion in the health care bill, we likely would have rewarded such action with a bipartisan endorsement policy.” Veteran social conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly said the health care vote “exploded the myth of the pro-life Democrat.”
Kristen Day, executive director of Democrats for Life of America, told TAS that this approach will “hurt the pro-life community.” Even the most dogged Republican critics of Day’s organization will concede this much: every significant pro-life legislative victory of the past 35 years has been to some degree bipartisan. Without pro-life Democrats in Congress, more bills expanding abortion and fewer bills restricting it would have become law. But many pro-life Republicans on Capitol Hill are scratching their heads about how to work with those Democrats going forward.
Why did pro-life Democrats give in to their pro-choice leaders at the precise moment they had the maximum leverage over their party? Hints to the answer could be found long before Congressman Bart Stupak (D-MI) became a household name during the health care fight. Consider the scene when antiabortion delegates and activists held a town hall meeting at the 2008 Democratic National Convention.
Gathering downstairs at the Hotel Monaco in Denver, the pro-life Democrats were few in number but upbeat in spirit. Just four years before, many leading Democrats — including 2004 presidential nominee John Kerry and eventual Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean — had publicly conceded that the party’s pro-abortion image was costing their candidates votes across the country. Democratic strategist Donna Brazile admitted to the New York Times, “Even I have trouble explaining to my family that we are not about killing babies.”
The emerging consensus was that Democrats would have to recruit more pro-life candidates for public office and find a way to make even their pro-choice messaging more palatable to voters who disagreed with them. On the convention floor, few speakers — with the significant exception of NARAL Pro-Choice America president Nancy Keenan — mentioned abortion. Unlike his father 16 years before, Sen. Bob Casey Jr. (D-PA) was allowed to give a speech, acknowledging, “Barack Obama and I have an honest disagreement on the issue of abortion.”
In this climate, the Democratic pro-lifers might have been able to exact real concessions from their party’s pro-choice leadership. Instead they seemed pleased with modest gestures. The Democratic platform did not weaken the party’s unqualified support for legal abortion on demand with taxpayer funding; it did not even acknowledge the existence of pro-life Democrats in the party who disagree. But it did promise increased public spending to benefit pregnant women who wish to carry their children to term, which was good enough for most people in the room.
Senator Casey called the new platform language “tremendous progress, and a very good thing to have in there, and a very positive sign.” Liberal evangelicals like Tony Campolo, who was at the event, and Jim Wallis, who wasn’t, also gushed over the slight revision. Nevertheless, Casey did confess, “I would say that the abortion part of the platform wasn’t good enough for me.”
The assembled pro-lifers were also eager to remind everyone that they were still Democrats. One speaker, a professor of theology at Georgetown, cracked that John Paul II’s Evangelium Vitae could only be turned into a “Republican campaign document” with “significant editing.” Representatives of Catholics for the Common Good touted various liberal economic policies as being better at reducing abortion rates than the legal restrictions preferred by Republicans. “We need to protect life not from conception to birth but from conception to natural death,” said Congressman Heath Shuler (D-NC). “[Democrats] need a lot of work on the first nine months, but Republicans have a lot more work to do from birth to natural death.”
Finally, there was a lot of confidence in the pro-life Democrats’ ability to arrive at “common ground” with their pro-choice peers and influence their nominee, who was arguably the most pro-abortion major presidential candidate in history. Asked to explain Obama’s comment about not wanting his daughters “punished with a child,” Casey said, “I don’t think it reflects what he thinks about children or what he thinks about the birth of a child. I can say that because I know him.”
The pivotal pro-life democrats would display all of these tendencies in the waning days of the health care debate. But few Republicans had pause about working with Bart Stupak, the co-chair of the congressional pro-life caucus. “The press often describes Stupak as a conservative Democrat but he’s not,” a senior Republican congressional staffer told TAS. “He’s liberal on almost everything else but he’d been rock-solid on abortion. Unlike past Democratic co-chairs [of the pro-life caucus], we could always rely on him.”
Stupak had a 100 percent rating from the National Right to Life Committee (NRLC) as recently as 2005-06. When President Obama rescinded the Mexico City policy, which kept taxpayer funds from going to family planning organizations that perform or promote abortions overseas, Stupak protested alongside pro-life Republicans. Stupak was a leader in the fight to keep pro-life riders in the appropriations bills — most notably, the Hyde Amendment — from getting deleted by the Democratic majority.
Consequently, few people were surprised when Stupak joined with Congressman Joe Pitts (R-PA) to introduce an amendment imposing an ironclad ban on taxpayer funding of abortion in the health care bill. What was more surprising is that the House leadership allowed the Stupak-Pitts Amendment to come to a vote and that it passed with 64 Democratic votes. While more than 100 Democrats voted for the Hyde Amendment in 1976, at the time the pro-life wing of the party was much larger.
But the issue of public funding of abortion in the health care bill was complicated. Many people mistakenly assume that the Hyde Amendment is a law establishing a government-wide ban on federal abortion subsidies. In fact, it is an annual appropriations rider that must be renewed every year. It could be repealed or simply allowed to expire by any future Congress. It also only covers one specific appropriations bill, mainly financing Medicaid. Abortion funding in every other government program, from health insurance benefits for federal employees to the Indian Health Service, had to be specifically banned by separate Hyde Amendment-like provisions. Otherwise federal courts and regulators will require coverage of abortion, which under Roe v. Wade is deemed a constitutional right.