Magazine | February 23, 2009, Issue

The Hot Seat

Can pro-life Democrats continue to make a difference?

There are more pro-life Democrats, even now, than you might think. There’s no denying that the numbers have dropped off over the years. In the early years of the abortion debate, pro-lifers could boast — if that’s the right word — the support of Ted Kennedy and Dick Durbin. There were about 100 pro-life Democrats in the House in the late 1970s. Democratic voters were more likely to be pro-life than Republican voters even in the late 1980s. Since then the party rank-and-file has moved left on the issue, and the Kennedys and Durbins have moved with them.

But in recent years, separate polls by John Zogby and by Kellyanne Conway have found that about a third of Democratic voters still consider themselves pro-life. Even more Democrats favor pro-life policies such as a ban on abortions with exceptions for rape, incest, and threats to the mother’s life. In the last two election cycles, Democrats have been willing to run a few pro-life candidates against pro-life Republicans, and some of those Democratic candidates have won. Five new pro-life Democrats were elected to the House in November — including a woman, Kathy Dahlkemper of Erie, Pa. (Pro-lifers are always especially happy to see a female ally elected. Relative to their numbers in the population at large, pro-life women are vastly underrepresented in Congress.)

In the Senate, there are only two Democrats who vote with pro-lifers on most issues: Bob Casey Jr. of Pennsylvania and Ben Nelson of Nebraska. In the House, pro-lifers can usually get about 25 Democrats to support their positions. The precise number depends on the issue. In the last Congress, only 16 Democrats voted against providing taxpayer dollars for stem-cell research that destroys human embryos. Thirty-one voted against a bill to allow the cloning of embryos to be destroyed in such research.

Most of the pro-life Democrats are to the right of their party on a large spectrum of issues, but not all of them are. Dale Kildee of Michigan usually votes with pro-lifers — although in the last Congress he defected on stem-cell research — but also got a 100 percent rating from the liberal group Americans for Democratic Action last year. (The American Conservative Union gives him a career score of less than 13 percent agreement with it.)

Like pro-life Republicans, pro-life Democrats vary in the intensity and sincerity of their commitment to their putative cause. Bart Stupak of Michigan has a solid pro-life record and has served as the Democratic co-chairman of the House Pro-Life Caucus. Lincoln Davis of Tennessee is another pro-life stalwart. He is the sponsor of the Pregnant Women Support Act, an initiative of the Democrats for Life of America.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, a lot of Democratic pro-lifers (and a few Republican pro-lifers) switched with great fanfare to the pro-choice side, in keeping with the conventional wisdom of the day about the political direction of the country. In recent years we have seen a new phenomenon: Democrats who claim to continue to be pro-life but no longer vote that way.

Senate majority leader Harry Reid of Nevada is the most prominent member of this category. Since he became the leader of his caucus in 2005, he has voted with pro-lifers exactly three times: twice on a parental-notification bill, once on whether the federal Indian Health Service should fund abortions. Eight times he has voted the other way. He backs embryo-destructive research. He thinks groups that commit or promote abortion should receive some of the money our government gives to promote family planning overseas. (The money does not go directly for abortions or abortion advocacy, but it frees up other money for those purposes.) At the end of January, he voted to stop the federal health-care program for children from covering unborn children. Reid may still consider himself a pro-lifer, but if so he has an idiosyncratic definition of the term.

Rep. Jim Langevin of Rhode Island is on an advisory board of the Democrats for Life. Paralyzed by an accident at age 16, Langevin supports embryo-destructive stem-cell research as a way to help people with similar ailments. In the last Congress, however, he did more than just vote to fund such research and to allow cloning to advance it. He also voted against pro-lifers on the foreign-aid question and on funding for Planned Parenthood, the nation’s largest abortion provider.

#page# Rep. Tim Ryan, who represents the Youngstown area of Ohio, is a self-proclaimed pro-lifer. He worked with his staunchly pro-choice colleague Rosa DeLauro (who represents New Haven, Conn.) to introduce the “Reducing the Need for Abortions and Supporting Parents Act.” The legislation has been billed as an attempt to find common ground on abortion, although the common ground was confined to Democrats: The bill had 40 Democratic and zero Republican co-sponsors in the last Congress. The bill’s focus is on promoting contraception. Most pro-lifers have shied away from the bill, since it would increase federal funding for Planned Parenthood and because there isn’t much evidence that federal efforts to promote contraception really would reduce the abortion rate. (Most pro-lifers are less than thrilled by the bill title, too, with its implication that right now abortion is needed.)

Even though Ryan presents himself as a pro-lifer, he did not cast a single pro-life vote in the last Congress. He broke with pro-lifers on stem-cell funding, on cloning, on foreign aid, and, of course, on Planned Parenthood funding. Nowadays his allegedly “pro-life” advocacy consists entirely of working with Congresswoman DeLauro to funnel more money to abortion providers.

Among non-Democratic pro-lifers — the vast bulk of pro-lifers these days, that is — there is palpable frustration with their Democratic brethren. Pro-life Democrats had a window of opportunity after the 2004 election, when everyone from defeated presidential candidate John Kerry to strategist Donna Brazile was blaming the party’s travails in part on its abortion extremism. Party chairman Howard Dean was among those who signaled a new openness to pro-lifers.

But pro-life Democrats did not take advantage of the moment. The 2008 Democratic platform declares, “The Democratic Party strongly and unequivocally supports Roe v. Wade and a woman’s right to choose a safe and legal abortion, regardless of ability to pay, and we oppose any and all efforts to weaken or undermine that right.” That bit about the “ability to pay” is a coded endorsement of taxpayer funding for abortion. Yet prominent pro-life Democrats, including the head of Democrats for Life, Kristen Day, pronounced themselves pleased at the progress the party had made, since the platform also endorsed welfare spending to help women who keep their children.

Nor did many pro-life Democratic leaders balk at supporting Barack Obama for president, notwithstanding his own dreadful record and commitments. As a state legislator Obama took the view — which to this day he has not repudiated — that a child who survives an abortion has no legal right to be treated humanely if the abortionist does not deem the child viable. Senator Casey nonetheless stumped for him in the Democratic presidential primary.

As the election approached, a few pro-lifers argued that Obama would actually better serve the anti-abortion cause than his rival John McCain. Abortion is going to stay legal, the argument ran: Pro-lifers have lost that fight for the duration. What we can do, the argument continued, is reduce the abortion rate by extending health coverage, boosting wages, and so forth, all of which the Democrats would allegedly do.

Whatever else can be said of those arguments, they may be about to be put to a severe test. For while we do not know the exact economic and social policies that would minimize the abortion rate, we do know that taxpayer funding of abortion increases its incidence. Studies by both advocates and foes of abortion, not to mention common sense, say so.

Obama favors the Freedom of Choice Act. That act’s sponsors say that it would make partial-birth abortion legal again. It would also sweep away informed-consent laws and waiting periods for abortions. News coverage sometimes implies that whether the act mandates taxpayer funding of abortion is a disputed question. But its sponsors admit that it would. And the bill’s language — governments may not “discriminate against the exercise of [abortion] rights . . . in the regulation or provision of benefits” — admits of no other interpretation.

The Democrats may not have the votes to pass FOCA. Since it is not a sure thing, they may not want a fight on it. But the Hyde Amendment, which bans federal funding for most abortions, has to be renewed every year by Congress, so there could well be an attempt to weaken it.

Pro-life Republicans’ frustration with pro-life Democrats should be tempered with appreciation. Pro-life Democrats are subject to a lot of pressure from their party, and deserve credit for the extent to which they have stood up to it. Almost no pro-life legislation could have passed, even in the twelve years of GOP Congresses, without the pro-life Democrats. A lot of pro-choice legislation would have passed without them. The question now is what they’ll make of their leverage in an all-Democratic Washington. We’ll know soon enough.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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