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The Demise of Pro-Life Democrats: Be Careful What You Pray For

4 years ago
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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.

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I wonder how pro-lifers will adjust when, having decided the government has the right to interfere in the choices of women, it is decided that means the government also has the right to interfere in the choices of men. How about if all those women who are required to give birth to the babies of incest and rape demand the castration of the fathers of those ill-conceived babies? Or, how about if women decide that second amendment solution so much beloved by some of the Tea Baggers is the right solution for their problem? I am so tired of all those ranting "Christians" who refuse to accept that the right of a woman to choose is a god-given right. It is, after all, according to them, God who put the womb in the body of the woman thus conferring upon her the right to make the choices about the baby until it is born. Don't they notice that when they want to turn that right over to government they are going against God's will?

November 09 2010 at 5:28 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
dc walker

Whatever happened to pro-prevention. I don't intend to have a child this year so I will practice prevention. I will see my doctor to see what method I should choose. I will abstain, take the pill, IUD, etc. so as not to bring an unwanted child into the world. I was an embryo, zygote as well as anyone else and I was given the chance at life. I believe abortion should stay on the books but I believe also that we need to get hold of our children young and TALK to them about their bodies and their respect for themselves and their future children. 42 million fetuses were aborted worldwide last year I think women can do better.

November 05 2010 at 12:51 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

The less impact the pro-life movement has, the greater the good for America. Pro-life is UNAMERICAN. Pro-life is UNPATRIOTIC. It seeks to ban, and place limitations, on personal sovereignty. Just because abortion is legal doesn't mean EVERYONE gets abortions. How many new teenage moms are there? How many new single, jobless mothers are there now? Child birth is not going away, people. Chill the **** out. Limiting of options is infinitely more destructive to the American cause than promotion choices. Also note that fighting for a Christian agenda is equally unpatriotic and anti-American: it goes directly against the declaration that our government shall make no formal adoption of any religion. You are disrespecting that, and spitting in the faces of our founding fathers. You want to talk of principle? Stop trying to force your dogma on everybody else.

November 04 2010 at 8:40 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

lo colon - The term is zygote, not Cygot; and yes, it is a human being. Once the sperm and egg are combined, the map for a full-fledged, unique, human being is created. That single cell has all of the human information he or she will ever have throughout life. It IS a human being. It is nothing else. Which brings us to the question of whether or not it is a human being worthy of protecting. At this point society has decided, no. Okay, fine. But I will bet you any amount of money you are against the death penalty. Which always leave me a bit confused about the way people like you think.

November 04 2010 at 8:30 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
lo colon

Well stated, TigerLilly. Hey Stacy, then you shouldn't object to the morning after pill being made readily availble to those that engage in unprotected sex. The Cygot is not a 'baby' yet. Wouldn't that reduce the huge burden imposed on the taxpayer in paying for unwanted pregnancies? Nah, that makes too much economic and practical sense. You gotta love this country where spineless politicians do not have the courage to make hard political choices either to repeal the Court decision permitting abortions or end this controversy once and for all. There are more pressing matters to attend to.

November 04 2010 at 1:29 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Thank you for your thoughtful and insightful article, as usual, Mr. Gibson. I have to admit that I am so weary of the self-righteous tone of the phase "pro-life" when it is applied only to the abortion issue. I suggest substituting the phrase "anti-abortion" when the issue under discussion only references preventing abortion. Let's use the term "pro-life" when it actually describes issues that support LIFE--like healthcare availability, care of our planet's air, water and soil, education, and a fair wage, just to name a few. So much of the so called "pro-life" movement rallies itself only around preventing abortion--once a child is born, I don't see much concern about whether its' thriving is equally supported. As a Catholic nun, I also dislike the fact that the pro-life issue has become contorted with punitive and exclusive religion. Fran Ferder FSPA

November 04 2010 at 12:50 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

Stupek pretended to be pro-life until he got squeezed. Then he caved and quit, too embarrassed to run again because of all the pro-life support he had enjoyed up over the years. You can't be a principled pro-life voice and a Dem. at the same time.

November 04 2010 at 11:16 AM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply

Question: What good is the Pro Life label on a Democrat. Answer: it's a political ploy to pick up a few votes. Like Mr. Stupak and others in this congress, Pro Life Democrats have shown they will abandon pro life principles given even the slightest cover.

November 04 2010 at 9:50 AM Report abuse +6 rate up rate down Reply

The real issue is that the GOP tries to tell us who to sleep with and what to do with our bodies, especially women. The GOP denies science, health issues for women and yet tries to tell us they are for individual freedom. BS! period. The GOP wants freedom for business but denies it for labor and working people by refusing to enforce safety laws (OHSA) that hurts people (workers) in favor of business. They fight sex education for young womenn and have for years, want them to have babies to keep them poor all in the name that things will be fine after death. Those that rule with the afterlife in mind have no business ruling in this life.

November 04 2010 at 9:02 AM Report abuse +5 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to M's comment

You can sleep with whomever you want, just don't expect the taxpayer to subsidize the results of your carnel one night stands.

November 04 2010 at 12:19 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Double standards... Like when Repubs and teaparty SAY they want less Government intrusion in our private lives, yet they are the ones insisting on laws to outlaw things they personally don't like. So, I guess if they can stick a 'moral' tag on it, its justified? No abortion, no pot, no same sex marriage etc? But its ok to rob, rape and pollute the Earth, as long as there's a profit to be made? Oil companies can literally destroy whole ecosystems and peoples lives for generations, but thats ok, cause they're making a profit. If a poor girl gets pregnant, as it happens too often, which is the higher long term tax drain, an abortion or years of welfare for her and her child? If you don't like abortion, don't have one. Let God be the judge, you are not qualified to usurp his job. Men, wear a condom or shut up, its a nearly 100% sure cure for you. If you would teach kids the reality of how profoundly teen pregnancy will affect the quality of the rest of their lives, and discuss birth control instead of sticking your head in the sand and squawking abstinance, it would be alot more useful. Think of it as insurance, to protect your childs future. Statistics show well educated young women put off child bearing till they are in their mid to late twenties. Poorer, uneducated girls have those babies, drop out of school, and go on welfare, because the Daddy splits, her parents can't or wont help and its nearly impossible to go to school, care for and work to support yourself and a baby. Its nearly impossible for young people to get any jobs, these days, much less young Mom's who will have more than the usual sick days and daycare issues, etc. How about a little Christian love and understanding instead of condemnation of people who's lives and struggles you can't begin to imagine?

November 04 2010 at 12:26 AM Report abuse +15 rate up rate down Reply
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