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Life Lynched

Rep. Stephen Lynch's decision not to run for Ted Kennedy's seat shows pro-life Democrats know their place in the party.

By 9.16.09

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Believe it or not, the late Ted Kennedy's Senate seat was once held by a pro-life Democrat. Even more remarkably, that pro-life Democrat was Kennedy himself. Asked in 1971 what he thought of the nascent campaign to legalize abortion, Kennedy memorably responded that "abortion on demand is not in accordance with the value which our society places on human life."

"Wanted or unwanted," Kennedy continued, "I believe that human life, even at its earliest stages, has certain rights which must be recognized -- the right to be born, the right to love, the right to grow old." These words ended up being valuable only to political historians chronicling the decline of the pro-life Democrat. Within two years, Roe v. Wade was decided, abortion was a national political issue, and Kennedy hewed to liberalism's pro-choice party line.

Kennedy's Senate seat won't be filled by a pro-life Democrat after the special election to fill the vacancy caused by his death. Congressman Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.) of South Boston announced yesterday that he was taking a pass on the race. The leading Democrats still considering a Senate run are all pro-choice, as are most Massachusetts voters according to polls taken in the nation's second most Catholic state.

Most of the stories commenting on Lynch's surprising decision not to run -- he was expected to make his candidacy official today -- have focused on his failure to win sufficient union backing. A former ironworker and traditional blue-collar Democrat, Lynch had expected the unions to provide the institutional support and elbow grease he needed to win. But Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley, the Democratic frontrunner, won the endorsement of the Teamsters Local 25.

A senior Lynch adviser told the Boston Globe that "support from organized labor was not materializing." A second adviser was quoted by the Globe as saying, "He realized the parts weren't there to win." Lynch implied as much himself when he said in a statement that the "challenge of putting together the resources and organization necessary to wage a competitive statewide campaign in less than 90 days is insurmountable."

Less remarked upon was why overwhelming union support was so essential -- the fact that Lynch wasn't going to get much help from other liberal interest groups in the commonwealth and around the country. He was slow to back gun control, though he received a grade of "F" from the National Rifle Association, and took a little too long for liberals' comfort to see the wisdom of his party's stand on gay rights. He voted to authorize the war in Iraq and was the only member of the Massachusetts House delegation to vote in favor of a 2006 Republican resolution opposing "an arbitrary date for the withdrawal or redeployment" of U.S. troops.

Yet the biggest issue separating Lynch from the left wing of his party is abortion. He has described himself as pro-life since he served in the Massachusetts legislature. When he entered the race to fill the late Congressman Joe Moakley's House seat in 2001, Lynch was pilloried for his abortion views by all his Democratic primary opponents -- including two who had flipped from pro-life to pro-choice themselves.

"Unlike some people, I'm not sure precisely when life begins, or whether a fetus is a legal person," Lynch conceded to liberal newspaper columnist Thomas Oliphant. "But I believe strongly that this is at least the potential of human life and that it is the most special and precious gift, and must be protected." For this measured description of his abortion views, Oliphant dubbed Lynch a "committed opponent of abortion rights as they currently exist in this country."

Republicans also tried to use abortion against Lynch. In a Hail Mary attempt to win in an overwhelmingly Democratic district, the GOP nominated Joanne Sprague, a socially liberal Republican state senator who described herself as a "pro-choice woman who believes that opposition to civil unions for gays is un-American." Columnist Eileen McNamara predicted, "Sprague could attract more liberal voters and pull off a win reminiscent of Republican William Weld's victory over Democrat John Silber in the governor's race a decade ago."

The Eileen McNamaras were wrong. Lynch was able to win the Democratic primary and then crush Sprague in the general election for two reasons: His geographic base in the district wasn't turned off by cultural conservatism and his recently deceased predecessor, Joe Moakley, remained a committed opponent of abortion long after Ted Kennedy had flipped.

Once in Congress, Lynch voted to ban partial-birth abortion. He supported continued funding of health providers that refuse to provide abortion referrals or information. Lynch voted to recognize unborn children as victims in crimes against pregnant women and to restrict interstate transport of minors to help them get abortions in contravention of other states' parental-involvement laws.

Even on abortion, though, Lynch has tried to move left to please his party bosses. Like many pro-life Democrats in the Harry Reid mold, Lynch has become more of a Democrat than a pro-lifer. He opposed the National Right to Life Committee on every vote in 2007-08 after supporting them 64 percent of the time as recently as 2002-03. He voted with NARAL Pro-Choice America 100 percent of the time in 2007 after earning a zero rating from them just the year before. Lynch consistently votes against pro-lifers on expanded federal funding of embryo-destructive stem-cell research.

Steve Lynch is nevertheless out of the Massachusetts Senate race while Congressman Michael Capuano, one of the Democrats who pounded pro-life former Boston Mayor Ray Flynn on abortion to win Joe Kennedy's House seat in 1998, is still pondering a run. "As a pro-life legislator I have always tried to show complete respect for those who hold different views," Lynch said meekly back in 2001. "I just hope that others will show the same respect for me."

Fat chance.

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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.