When it comes to the battle against abortion, the law of unintended consequences may be the first lesson for the resurgent Republicans, even though the incoming Congress won't be seated until January.
That's because the same wave that swept GOP candidates to a takeover of the House on Tuesday also washed away half of the 40 or so pro-life Democrats who had given the movement unprecedented influence in their party and in Congress.
Moreover, many of those pro-life Democrats, including such stalwarts as Rep. Steve Dreihaus of Ohio's 1st District and Kathleen Dahlkemper from Pennsylvania's 3rd District, were in fact targeted for defeat
by major pro-life organizations like the Susan B. Anthony List, which argued that those Democrats had betrayed their cause by backing health care reform and so deserved their fate.
While the health care law included unprecedented funding to aid pregnant women and similar measures aimed at reducing abortion -- as well as making care more accessible for mothers and babies -- conservative pro-life groups and religious organizations argued that it also included huge taxpayer subsidies for abortion.
Health care experts said that was not the case, and Democratic strategists said this fall's campaigns against pro-life Democrats showed that the major groups that oppose abortion -- the National Right To Life Committee, the Family Research Council and the like -- are more concerned with promoting the Republican Party than the pro-life movement.
"They put all their eggs in one party," said Kristen Day, executive director for Democrats for Life of America
, which has been pushing a pro-life agenda in the Democratic Party. "They don't want two pro-life parties because most of them want a Republican majority."
Day and others note that the overall cast of the new Congress on abortion is likely to remain unchanged, as pro-life Republicans replaced pro-life Democrats.
But the problem is that by targeting pro-life Democrats, partisan pro-lifers hurt the larger cause by reducing their influence in both parties and thereby diminishing the kind of political leverage that led to the passage -- in a Democratic-controlled Congress -- of laws like the Pregnant Women Support Act.
"There's been a lot of complaint across the political spectrum that American politics is too polarized on issues like abortion," John Green, a political scientist from the University of Akron and a leading expert in religious voting patterns, told Christianity Today
on the eve of the vote. "And yet the results of this election may be to polarize it even more in Congress because the pro-life voices are likely to be less common in the Democratic caucus and more common in the Republican caucus."
And the abortion issue, always an effective tool for rallying both sides rather than an avenue of political compromise, is likely to come up more often in the next Congress, but more as a way to define the political opposition than pass actual legislation.
Father Frank Pavone, who heads a pro-life lobby called Priests for Life, said Wednesday he agreed that the movement needs representation in both parties. But Pavone added that senators and representatives who want to claim the pro-life mantle have to live up to the movement's standards -- and too many Democrats did not do so in this past congress.
Pro-life Democrats and Republicans alike "need to make the issue a higher priority than loyalty to the Party or the President, and some of those who lost were punished for not having done that," Pavone said in an e-mail.
The presence of pro-life Democrats was the product of a decision by Democratic leaders after the defeat in the 2004 presidential election. They wanted to broaden the party to welcome pro-lifers and more conservative Democrats. Success in recruiting such candidates, such as North Carolina's Heath Shuler, went hand in hand with the party's successes in winning Congress and the White House.
But many pro-life groups that were either ideologically tied to the GOP or so used to having only one party -- the Republicans -- return their calls that they did not adjust easily to the bipartisan possibilities, and when the debate over abortion funding in health care exploded, they quickly turned on pro-life Democrats.
Some of those Democrats, such as Bart Stupak
of Michigan, who led the fight to ban abortion funding from health care reform, along with Bart Gordon of Tennessee and Charles Melancon of Louisiana, grew weary of the opposition and announced their retirements before the campaign began. All three of their districts flipped from Democrat to Republican.
Those who stayed to fight faced serious opposition from their would-be allies in the old line pro-life movement in a year when every Democrat already faced an uphill climb to re-election.
The Susan B. Anthony List spent $3.4 million on its "Votes Have Consequences"
project targeting what it dismissively labeled "self-described 'pro-life' Democrats," and the SBAL claimed victory in at least 16 out of 20 races in which it campaigned against Democrats. The SBAL also worked on behalf of Rep. Dan Lipinski of Illinois, who voted against health care reform; Lipinski survived.
Another danger in the defeat of pro-life Democrats is that it could diminish the willingness of the party's leaders, who always face great pressure from their pro-choice power base, to compromise on abortion issues or even give the pro-lifers a hearing. The leadership could read the results of the election as evidence they cannot win either way with abortion opponents, so better to simply rally the pro-choice base.
Kristen Day countered that pro-lifers have developed "a level of trust" with the Democratic leadership over the years, and she expects that to continue despite their reduced ranks. Day also noted, with a certain ruefulness, that her camp did post a 33 percent gain in pro-life Democrats in the Senate with the election of West Virginia's Joe Manchin to replace the late Sen. Robert Byrd. Manchin will join Nebraska's Ben Nelson and Pennsylvania's Robert Casey, Jr. as the upper chamber's only Democratic opponents of abortion.
The other irony of this election is that a case resulting from an SBAL billboard ad that was designed to accuse Ohio's Steve Dreihaus of "voting FOR taxpayer-funded abortion" because he supported health care reform may finally prove whether the health care law does include abortion funding and whether the pro-life Democrats were unfairly targeted.
The Dreihaus campaign had complained
that the Susan B. Anthony billboard (which was never erected) made a demonstrably false claim, which would be against Ohio's election laws. The state's elections commission ruled that there was probable cause to go forward with the complaint, but a subsequent hearing was postponed until after the elections.
If Dreihaus prevails in that case, it would be his only campaign victory this year, and a bittersweet one at that for his fellow abortion opponents.