Politics & Policy

New York’s Rock of Life

The value of a Right to Life party.

The anniversary of Roe v. Wade has people on both sides reflecting on three decades’ worth of controversy. For pro-lifers all over the country, Roe has meant a long 30 years of protest and political struggle. And nowhere has that struggle seen more drama and enthusiasm than in the state of New York.

With the legalization of abortion in New York in 1970, the Right to Life party was born, thanks mainly to the efforts of a group of Long Islanders. The party had made the state ballot by 1978, when its candidate, Mary Jane Tobin of Merrick, won 130,000 votes in the gubernatorial race. The party has been a constant presence — and, some would say, headache — ever since, though it suffered a setback in the 2002 elections when it failed to get the 50,000 gubernatorial votes needed to remain on the ballot. (Its attorney general candidate received about 70,000 votes and its comptroller about 62,000.)

New York, of course, has long been an exceptionally liberal state. It had lax abortion laws prior to Roe v. Wade, and pro-lifers here faced a battle unlike those in more conservative parts of the country. If any state ever needed a pestering conscience, it’s been New York. Few party members or those who ran on the line ever believed they could win, especially on a statewide level. But that rarely has been their goal. Rather, it has been to remind people that this issue is still alive and still paramount, and to show politicians it is of grave importance to many voters. As Ken Diem, chair of the RTL party, puts it: from 1978 to 2002, you could not vote in New York State “without seeing the baby on the ballot.”

The failure to gain 50,000 votes this past election cycle has been blamed on Tom Golisano, the Independent candidate for governor. Shortly before the election he sent out pamphlets explaining that he was against partial-birth abortion and federal funding of abortion. That cost a lot of votes. Mr. Diem insists Golisano used the issue to his political advantage — that he was not a candidate who could be trusted with the issue once actually in office.

Dennis Dillon, Nassau County district attorney, ran for governor against Mario Cuomo in 1986, on both the Democratic and RTL line. Dillon — who has since switch to the GOP — was reluctant at first, but he couldn’t stand the idea of letting Cuomo waltz in unchallenged on the issue. Asked if he thought it a more practical use of one’s ballot to vote for candidates who seemed amenable to working with pro-lifers, Dillon answers simply: “Once they are elected, they have to get elected again.” It’s difficult to get them to go the extra mile in office if that isn’t how they campaigned. The Republican party in Nassau County, Long Island, Mr. Dillon points out, would not support a candidate if he ran on the RTL line. The party is trying to salvage its reputation after a budget disaster incurred on the Republicans’ watch. They need all the votes they can get.

Not everyone in the pro-life movement favors the RTL party. Some see nothing but wasted time and money, and ultimate defeat. The party has also butted heads with the RTL Committee, pro-life Republicans and conservatives, and others who are more willing to work with moderates, and in increments, to abolish abortion. These tend to see party members as unyielding and unsympathetic. “It’s a good idea in theory, not practice,” explains Elizabeth Graham of Texas Right to Life. “Those who do not understand the Right to Life [movement] hold tremendous disdain for our one-issue candidates.”

Yet my own mother, who ran for assemblywoman from a Rockland County district on the RTL line, found that her campaigning was greeted by many with respect: “They were always courteous.” Often she would see “a softening of somebody’s face” as they listened to her and realized she actually knew what she was talking about. But, she adds, “the system goes against smaller parties”; so without the media and the money, it is difficult to be a viable competitor. In local elections, however, the RTL party has always been more successful. The candidates have more personal dealings with the electorate and they have local name recognition. Mr. Diem brags that locally, the RTL party outpolls both the Conservative and Independent parties.

I’ve known many unbending RTL party members who won’t hear a word about compromise of any kind. Yet years of seeing candidates reach office, only to fall through on the abortion issue, can make a pro-life advocate nervous — think of former “pro-life” Republican Senator Alfonse D’Amato’s vote for Ruth Bader Ginsburg to the Supreme Court, or “pro-choice” Republican George Pataki getting the Conservative party’s endorsement. Again, New York needs tough voices for a tough crowd.

Since 1978, winning at least 50,000 votes each election cycle has been no small feat. Those votes have been blaring voices speaking out on behalf of those who could not. The voters who left the RTL party in 2002 to cast their votes for Golisano were supporting someone they believed was pro-life; it is still important enough an issue that a political party can form around it. Mr. Diem and his party faithful emphasize that the RTL party is still alive and kicking and will be back on the ballot — even if they have to petition for it.

“Third” parties may never receive the same attention as the two major parties, but they do serve a purpose — that of influencing and affecting the tone of the mainstream parties. There is no doubt in my mind that, if it has not succeeded in pressuring Republicans and Conservatives in New York State, the Right to Life party has at least made them worry a little, and pay more attention than they would have to a very vocal part of their constituency. And RTL also stands, of course, as a visible reminder that there is a very boisterous pro-life voice even in the overwhelmingly liberal bastion of New York State. And for all the so-called pro-life and moderate politicians, in all parties, a little uneasy sleep is more than just.


The Latest