Political Hay

A Pro-Life Revival?

The seeds have already been planted. In the Democratic Party.

By 11.16.06

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Operation Rescue termed election day "Bloody Tuesday," since "America voted across the board to reject measures and candidates that would have restricted abortion." Other groups were equally downcast. Democrats took control of both the House and Senate; a near absolute abortion ban was rejected in South Dakota, while California and Oregon voters killed proposals for parental notification.

The pro-life movement undoubtedly faces a difficult future, at least in the near-term. Still, Operation Rescue president Troy Newman declared: "we have no doubt that those who respect life will eventually regain control of our governmental institutions. It is inevitable."

That may be an overstatement, but the seeds of a pro-life revival already have been planted. In the Democratic Party.

To some degree the pro-life movement's losses have been overstated. For instance, California and Oregon always will be difficult states for any social regulation, and the pro-life side won 46 percent in both cases.

The South Dakota referendum was extreme, forthrightly challenging current Supreme Court doctrine and failing to provide an exception for rape victims. The number of latter cases is small but the principle is important: a rape victim has not chosen to have sex, and therefore has no responsibility for the pregnancy. Even if one would counsel such a person to have the child, many pro-lifers don't believe that it is right to mandate that they do so. Some pro-life groups refused to back the South Dakota measure.

By and large, the congressional losses weren't about abortion. Indeed, they were about everything but abortion -- part referendum on George W. Bush, part response to the Iraqi imbroglio, part perception of the GOP as the new party of big government. In short, pro-lifers didn't lose the election.

Nevertheless, pro-life votes were lost. However, over the long term the drop in GOP abortion opponents might be balanced by the rise in the number of pro-life Democrats. So far the number is small, but the election points to a time when scores of Democrats helped deliver a majority for the so-called Hyde Amendment, blocking public funding of abortion -- in the heavily Democratic House.

Democrats for Life of America (DFLA) points to the election of six pro-life Democratic House members: Jason Altmire and Chris Carney (Pennsylvania), Joe Donnelly (Indiana), Brad Ellsworth (Indiana), Heath Shuler (North Carolina), and Charlie Wilson (Ohio).

In the main, these candidates were not shy about promoting their pro-life views. For instance, Shuler declared: I am "a pro-life Democrat and I believe that all life is sacred."

Assuming seniority holds, three committees will be chaired by pro-lifers: Jim Oberstar (Minnesota), Transportation; Collin Peterson (Minnesota), Agriculture; and Ike Skelton (Missouri), Armed Services. Others will run subcommittees.

Equally important, Bob Casey, Jr., of Pennsylvania will join the Senate. Casey's father, former Gov. Bob Casey, made waves when he was barred from speaking to the Democratic Convention in 1992. The new Senator neutralized the appeal of Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) on social issues and triumphed with his emphasis on economics and the war. Santorum's defeat is an obvious loss to the pro-life cause, but the onus now will be on Casey to break with Democratic orthodoxy on judges and to make his colleagues more sympathetic to the plight of the unborn.

There also were pro-life victories at the state level. Amy Sullivan of the New Republic wrote about Bill Ritter, Colorado's new governor. A Catholic and one-time overseas missionary, Ritter has confronted the Democratic Party's pro-abortion lobby head-on. He has emphasized steps other than legal restrictions; the true test will come when he must act on legislation, whichever way it goes.

The pro-life challenge today is to better sell the anti- abortion message in a bipartisan environment. After Democrat Paul Morrison defeated Kansas Attorney General Phill Klein, who had initiated a high-profile campaign against state abortion clinics, Operation Rescue entitled its press release: "Morrison Slithers into Kansas AG's Office on Backs of Dead Babies." Set aside the controversial nature of Klein's investigation, which itself became an issue. This sort of rhetoric isn't going to win votes.

And winning votes has got to be the game for both sides. Since Republicans already know how to appeal to pro-lifers, the real challenge will be on the Democratic side. Will Democratic leaders make a serious effort to broaden their party's appeal to life-minded voters? Will they be successful if they try?

Kristen Day, DFLA executive director, said after the election: "We look forward to working with Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi and the new leaders of the House to promote an agenda that will dramatically reduce the abortion rate in America." Such hopes seem badly inflated given the Democratic caucus's overall tenor, but Day's effort will provide an important Democratic litmus test. Does the Democratic majority attempt to govern from the center or does the liberal majority attempt to enforce its will on all Democrats?

In turn, that willingness will be critical if the Democrats hope to preserve their newfound majority. At some point Iraq will no longer be an issue. Voters still prefer GOP economics -- the Republicans lost votes because more people saw them as representatives of big government. A couple years of Democratic governance should dispel that sentiment.

Which means social issues again will become a critical area of electoral competition. Observes Steven Waldman of Beliefnet: "To cement the gains with religious voters and Catholics, the Democrats will likely need to develop a more moderate position on abortion. These new pro-life Democrats will surely press the case; it's an open question how the pro-choice Democrats who will still dominate the party will react."

The answer will determine much about the future course of U.S. politics.

Today pro-lifers understandably lament the transfer of party control in Congress. But if the recent election sparks a revival of pro-life Democrats, the loss may ultimately prove to be a boon. Over the long-term the unborn will be more secure if they have protectors in both parties.

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About the Author
Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is the author and editor of several books, including The Politics of Plunder: Misgovernment in Washington (Transaction).