Politics & Policy

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.

This would provoke outrage on the left, especially since pro-choice activists hate to lose ground. In the late 1990s, they vigorously fought proposals to ban partial-birth abortions. They often oppose even basic health and safety regulations for abortion clinics. Considering the influence the abortion lobby has over the Democratic party, it was not about to fall on its sword for the sake of Obamacare.

President Obama was left with no option but to let federal funds subsidize health-insurance plans that cover abortion. This proved problematic for several reasons. First, whatever their personal preferences about abortion, most Americans oppose government funding of it. Second, the Democratic party has recruited many pro-life candidates to run in conservative districts, and these Democrats would find it hard to support health-care reform that includes public funding for abortion. Finally, President Obama and other Democrats sound disingenuous when they say they want to reduce the incidence of abortion, but then subsidize it through health-care reform.

To defend the Democrats’ scheme, President Obama and his team have aggressively tried to spin away the problems posed by abortion funding. For instance, the Third Way, a progressive think tank, argued unpersuasively that Obamacare’s increased funding for contraception would lower abortion rates, so it would be a net gain for pro-lifers. Obama and other Democrats have also offered number of phony compromises. Most of these would give individuals the option to purchase a health-insurance plan that did not include coverage for abortion, but plans that do cover abortion would still be available — and subsidized with taxpayer dollars.

The pro-life movement, wisely, has not bought into this spin. Throughout the debate over health-care reform, it has insisted on an explicit ban on federal abortion funding and has offered clear and vocal opposition to any compromise proposals. Pro-lifers realize that abortion funding is a very effective wedge issue dividing moderate Democrats from Obama and his liberal base. Indeed, more than anything else, the conflict over abortion funding is responsible for the delay, and quite possibly the eventual defeat, of Obamacare.

As pro-lifers gather in Washington, D.C., this Friday for the 37th annual March for Life, we should take heart. Many observers were willing to dismiss abortion opponents as irrelevant just twelve months ago. Instead the pro-life movement rallied and enjoyed a successful year. We made impressive gains in public approval and exerted considerable influence in the debate over health-care reform. All of this bodes well for more substantial policy gains the future.

– Michael J. New is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Alabama and is a fellow at the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, N.J.

Michael J. New is a visiting assistant professor of social research and political science at the Catholic University of America and an associate scholar at the Charlotte Lozier Institute in Washington, D.C.

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