Tirty years after the Supreme Court handed down a decision that was supposed to be a definitive resolution of the abortion debate, the political opposition to that decision is alive and well. Pro-lifers not only won Senate passage of the partial-birth-abortion ban; they also showed remarkable strength in another test.
Harkin, the Iowa Democrat, offered an amendment expressing the sense of the Senate that Roe v. Wade was rightly decided. He had done the same thing during the partial-birth-abortion debate in October 1999. The amendment passed, as it did last time, but it will be stripped from the bill before its final passage.
The vote for the amendment was 52-46. It is reasonable to assume that the non-voters, Mitch McConnell and Joe Biden, would have voted with their parties. So the real division of opinion on Roe in the Senate is 53-47.
In 1999, the vote was 51-47 — counting the non-voters, 51-49.
Since that time, Republicans have lost four seats in the Senate. But pro-lifers have lost only two votes. Opposition to abortion is sometimes held to be a losing issue for Republicans; but in the last few election cycles, pro-lifers have done better than Republicans.
The number of pro-life Democrats in the Senate has increased. In 1999, only John Breaux of Louisiana and Harry Reid of Nevada voted against Roe. This time, they were joined by Zell Miller of Georgia, Ben Nelson of Nebraska, and Mark Pryor of Arkansas. (Pryor and Miller replaced Republicans who also voted against Roe, while Nelson replaced a Democrat who voted for it.)
Moreover, the pro-lifers’ two-vote slippage doesn’t reflect an actual decline in their political strength. Their vote was inflated in 1999 because Kay Bailey Hutchison, Republican of Texas, voted against Harkin’s amendment. She said at the time that she did not want to overturn Roe, but did not think the amendment belonged in the bill. This time, she voted for the amendment. Pro-lifers also lost one vote because Frank Murkowski of Alaska, who had voted with them, became governor and appointed his pro-choice daughter to replace him. That’s nothing that a primary can’t fix.