The Pro-Life Comeback of 2009
The health-care debate has shown the movement's continuing strength.


In the aftermath of the 2008 election, offering advice to Republicans became a cottage industry among Beltway pundits. For the most part, it was the same advice Republicans always receive when their candidates fare poorly: Moderate your positions on abortion and other social issues and focus on defense and fiscal policy. Even many conservative analysts agreed with this line of thought.

It’s no secret that the pro-life movement lost significant ground during the 2008 elections. However, the events of 2009 have clearly demonstrated the movement’s resiliency and heft. Indeed, it is safe to say that pro-lifers have been the most effective opponents of Obamacare. Their efforts on this issue alone show unmistakably that the right-to-life movement is an indispensable part of the center-right coalition.

There is plenty of evidence that the pro-life movement has made gains in the court of public opinion during the past several years. For instance, the pro-choice governors who were once thought to be the future of the Republican party (Whitman, Wilson, Weld) have vanished from the political scene. Furthermore, the infighting over the party’s pro-life platform plank has greatly diminished.

More important, Democrats have made a concerted (if less than convincing) effort to reach out to pro-life voters, or at least to avoid offending them. John Kerry and Barack Obama carefully avoided mentioning the party’s support for legal abortion during their acceptance speeches at the 2004 and 2008 Democratic conventions. When asked about abortion, President Obama usually talks about the need to reduce it and to find common ground. Furthermore, many Democrats make the argument (unpersuasively) that expanding welfare programs and increasing funding for contraceptives would be an effective strategy for reducing abortions.

In May the pro-life movement got additional evidence of its gains in public support. A Gallup poll found that 51 percent of Americans describe themselves as pro-life, while only 42 percent describe themselves as pro-choice. This was the first time that a Gallup survey has found a higher percentage of Americans on the pro-life side.

Not surprisingly, the mainstream media was quick to dismiss the results. Some argued that most of the pro-life public-opinion gains were the result of an anti-Obama backlash from registered Republicans. Other media outlets released surveys of their own that purportedly showed more modest changes in public opinion toward abortion. However, later that spring and into the summer, a number of surveys, including those taken by the Polling Company, Gallup, Rasmussen, Fox News, and Pew, all showed a substantial increase in the number of people either willing to identify themselves as pro-life or willing to support greater restrictions on abortion.

The increased influence of the pro-life movement is perhaps most conspicuous in the ongoing debate over health-care reform. The pro-life movement has a number of reasons to be concerned about health-policy changes. For instance, suppose abortion became a federally mandated health-care benefit. That could potentially do away with a number of state-level laws, including parental-involvement statutes and informed-consent laws, that the pro-life movement has worked tirelessly to enact. Furthermore, if the government subsidized insurance plans that cover abortion, that could make abortions easier to obtain and thereby increase the abortion rate.

The pro-life movement was in a unique position to create effective opposition to Obamacare. Most of the proposed reform plans include an individual health-insurance mandate, coupled with federal subsidies for low-income earners. This created a politically difficult decision for the Obama administration: Should these federal subsidies apply to health-insurance plans that cover abortion?

If abortion subsidies were explicitly excluded, the effects would extend far beyond low-income earners, due to the interlocking nature of Obamacare’s many rules and regulations. Health insurers would be required to offer their plans through a regulated exchange, and if plans covering abortion were excluded from federal subsidies, that would effectively amount to banning them entirely.