Political Hay

The Disappearing Pro-Life Democrat

Bart Stupak's bait and switch is part of a larger trend.

By 3.22.10

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Abortion has long divided the country, but it did not always divide the two major parties. When the issue was first nationalized in the 1970s, Democrats and Republicans differed among themselves more than with each other. In the first presidential election after Roe v. Wade, there were only relatively minor abortion-related differences between Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter. They ended up splitting voters on both sides.

In fact, large parts of the traditional Republican base were pro-choice and an even larger group of Democratic voters was pro-life. That's why no less a liberal than George McGovern opposed adding a strong pro-choice plank to the Democratic platform in 1972; both men he picked as running mates were pro-life. Though pro-choice, Carter objected to the Democratic platform's 1980 endorsement of taxpayer funding of abortion. Back then, there were upwards of 100 pro-life Democrats in Congress.

Today, are there any left? That's the question many pro-lifers find themselves asking after Rep. Bart Stupak's (D-MI) deal with the White House over abortion funding in the health care bill. After months of haggling, Stupak settled for an executive order that virtually no knowledgeable pro-lifer believes will be an effective ban on taxpayer funding of abortion.

President Obama's executive order essentially reiterates the abortion language Stupak and his allies had long found unacceptable while promising effective enforcement of the "segregation of funds" model most pro-lifers find unreliable. The order cannot amend or override the statute itself and can be rescinded by any president -- including this one -- at any time, if the courts do not overturn or ignore it first.

The only surefire ban on publicly funded abortion is an explicit statutory prohibition like the Stupak-Pitts Amendment, which is why pro-choice hardliners rejected that amendment but accepted the executive order. But Obama's signature on a piece of paper was nevertheless sufficient to get most of Stupak's wavering contingent of Democrats to vote to allow the federal government to subsidize and administer health plans offering elective abortion coverage.

Bloggers have been circulating footage of an old town hall meeting in which Stupak seemed prepared to capitulate on abortion funding a year ago. But given the recent history of many pro-life Democrats in Congress, one did not necessarily need YouTube to read the handwriting on the wall: almost as soon as the party leadership found it politically expedient to reach out to both sides of the abortion issue, Democratic pro-lifers began to marginalize themselves.

First, consider the voting records of many erstwhile pro-life Democratic stalwarts. One pivotal member of the "Stupak Dozen," liberal pro-life Rep. Dale Kildee (D-MI), voted with the National Right to Life Committee (NRLC) 100 percent of the time as recently as 2005-06. In the following Congress, Kildee voted with NRLC just 28 percent of the time. Rep. Michael McNulty (D-NY), who declined to run for re-election in 2008, was another pro-life liberal. He agreed with NRLC 78 percent of the time in 2005-06 but did not cast a single pro-life vote in the following Congress.

Some cases are even more jarring. Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-MA) took a lot of heat for his pro-life stand when he ran to fill the late Rep. Joe Moakley's House seat in 2001. But between 2006 and 2007, Lynch's NARAL Pro-Choice America score zoomed from zero all the way up to 100 percent. His NRLC score plummeted from a high of 64 percent in 2003-04 to zero in 2007-08. Prior to his dissent on Obamacare, Lynch's only pro-life vote in the current Congress was in favor of the Stupak Amendment.

Even Bart Stupak only voted with NRLC 50 percent of the time during the current Congress before the final Obamacare vote. The same was true for Reps. Jason Altmire (D-PA), Chris Carney (D-PA), and Steve Driehaus (D-OH). For putatively pro-life Reps. Paul Kanjorski (D-PA) and James Langevin (D-R.I.) it was just 25 percent, the same as the typically pro-choice members who happened to support the Stupak Amendment.

Let's stipulate that NRLC sometimes scores votes on issues not directly related to abortion -- like Medicare price negotiation and campaign finance reform -- likely to bid down the scores of pro-life liberals. But consider the case of Rep. Tim Ryan (D-OH), who was considered a rising star among pro-life Democrats. By 2007, he was voting 100 percent of the time with NARAL and not at all with NRLC. Last year, Ryan was "booted" (his words) from Democrats for Life of America (DFLA).

Why? Ryan was consistently voting to lavish taxpayer funds on the nation's largest abortion provider. Then he voted to allow taxpayer funding of abortion in the District of Columbia, a position opposed by 38 House Democrats. "I can't figure out for the life of me how to stop pregnancies without contraception," Ryan told the Youngstown Vindicator, in an effort to make the pro-life case for Planned Parenthood. "Don't be mad at me for wanting to solve the problem." Ryan dismissed DFLA as a "fringe group."

Oddly, pro-choice Democratic leaders reached the conclusion that their party was perceived as being too one-sided on abortion after the 2004 presidential election. This included the party's vanquished nominee, Sen. John Kerry (D-MA). Democrats began recruiting pro-life candidates to run in culturally conservative districts in 2006 and 2008. They chose an avowed pro-lifer, Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV), as their leader in the Senate.

But instead of using their new leverage over their party, many pro-life Democrats were seduced by talk of "common ground": subsidies for contraception even when supplied by abortion providers and liberal economic policies with arguable impact on abortion rates. While framing the 2008 Democratic platform plank on abortion, these pro-lifers failed to win inclusion of a "tolerance clause" recognizing their existence yet declared victory when the party endorsed welfare spending for women who choose to carry their children to term.

Meanwhile as Reid ascended the Democratic leadership ranks, he increasingly differed with pro-lifers on everything but the label. Currently, there are only two Democratic senators who vote with pro-lifers on most issues. Neither of them defected on the health care bill once the Stupak language was defeated. In the House, only 16 Democrats voted with pro-lifers against their leadership on the politically tough issue of taxpayer-funded embryo-destructive research.

Now there are Republicans in Congress who self-describe as pro-choice who have higher ratings from pro-life groups than Democrats who describe themselves as pro-life, and vice versa. Being pro-choice is a barrier to advancement within the Republican Party, as is being pro-life within the Democratic Party. The House health care vote revealed the partisan sorting on abortion is not quite complete, but it is close.

What made the Stupak Dozen a swing vote was the fact that they were not only pro-life Democrats, but mostly pro-life liberals. But that is precisely what made depending on them so risky -- most of them, including Stupak himself, did not oppose the health care bill in principle. They had all been willing to back the public option when it was voted on in the House. Hailing from union-heavy, fundamentally Democratic districts, they were all going to have a hard time voting against a vision of health care reform with which they substantially agreed.

Consequently, the pro-life Democrats who voted against the health care bill in the largest numbers were those who are to the right of their party on a broad spectrum of issues. Fox interviewed a stricken Rep. Gene Taylor (D-MS) as Stupak got ready to announce his deal with the president. "I told Bart what the president can do he can also undo," Taylor, a no vote, said quietly. But Democrats like Taylor would have voted against the health care bill even with the Stupak language, as they also opposed it on other grounds.

Now the Stupak Democrats will have to go home to their pro-life constituents and try to persuade them they are not pro-choice, but just cheap dates. Perhaps those pro-life constituents might not be so easily wooed.

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About the Author

W. James Antle III, author of the new book Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped?, is editor of the Daily Caller News Foundation and a senior editor of The American Spectator. You can follow him on Twitter @jimantle.