Pro-Life Democrats, Squeezed by a Partisan Issue
During the arduous debate that led to the passage of the Affordable Care Act, the dwindling band of pro-life Democrats in Congress saw an opportunity to extend their influence. But it didn’t turn out as they had hoped. If anything, the fight over Obamacare may have marked the end of their limited clout.
“You could feel the excitement” among this group, “who were like, ‘I can vote for this,’” recalled pro-life party activist Kristen Day regarding language that was proposed for the bill. “They were proud of it.”
Michigan Democrat Bart Stupak fashioned an amendment that would have explicitly prevented taxpayer funds from underwriting abortion -- putting it in line with current law under the Hyde Amendment, which bans federal funding for abortion except in cases of rape, incest or to save the life of the mother. Fifteen House Democrats joined him, asserting that they’d vote against the health care law if the amendment failed.
It passed the House, but was never taken up by the Senate. Ultimately, Stupak and all but one of the other pro-life House Democrats supported the health care bill anyway, largely on the strength of President Obama’s promise to sign an executive order with the language of the Stupak Amendment. That 2010 deal with Obama faced heavy criticism from pro-life advocates, who argued that the ACA still had provisions that would facilitate abortions.
The deal also proved fatal for some of the Democrats who were a part of it. Many of them lost re-election and Stupak went into retirement at the end of the legislative session. Day, executive director of Democrats for Life of America, looks back and laments the failed effort.
“The hammer just came down,” she said.
The hammer is coming down again on pro-life Democrats. Their latest losing fight with their own party took place in West Virginia, where Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin vetoed a bill banning abortions after 20 weeks, a measure that had sailed through the state’s Democratic-controlled legislature with huge bipartisan support.
By way of justification, Tomblin said he’d been advised by counsel that the measure was unconstitutional, an explanation that struck the bill’s infuriated supporters as disingenuous. Similar late-term abortion bans have passed elsewhere, they noted, and were upheld by federal courts. Also, the manner in which the bill was rushed through and then vetoed by the governor after the legislature had adjourned -- making an override nearly impossible -- left its sponsors feeling as though they’d been played.
For abortion opponents, the real question is more cosmic: No matter how they characterize their own position, do pro-life Democrats have a place in their party? In West Virginia, that question has fallen on the shoulders of Tomblin’s predecessor, highly popular U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin.
Manchin, a Democrat who describes himself as pro-life, is being urged in a West Virginia radio ad campaign to get behind a federal bill banning abortion after 20 weeks. The 30-second spot, sponsored by the anti-abortion Susan B. Anthony List, reads in part:
“Recently West Virginia lawmakers did the right thing. They overwhelmingly voted to protect babies from unbearable pain by ending abortions after 20 weeks. But Governor Earl Ray Tomblin turned his back on those babies and on pro-life West Virginians and vetoed the bill. Now it’s up to Senator Joe Manchin to step up for innocent babies.”
“It would be most appropriate for him to reflect the views of his constituents and remain loyal to his pro-life views,” former Republican Rep. Marilyn Musgrave, who now works for Susan B. Anthony List, said in an interview. Manchin “has the opportunity here to be a hero, to be true to his word on being pro-life, work hard for a vote on this.”
For his part, the first-term senator has expressed a desire that the bill not be politicized along partisan lines.
“You either support it or you don’t,” he told RCP, noting that he is wrangling support for the measure from other Senate Democrats. “We’re still working and still talking. We got to see if we can get other people and make it a true bipartisan bill.”
His dilemma is shared by others in his party. In a Gallup Poll, 63 percent of Democratic voters identified themselves as “pro-choice” and 29 percent as “pro-life.” These numbers contrast significantly with the attitudes of party members in Congress. According to Democrats for Life, only seven pro-life Democrats serve on Capitol Hill today. This means they make up less than 3 percent of the 252 Democrats in the House and Senate.
This huge disparity exists, Day argues, because the abortion issue has become increasingly partisan. “It’s just really gotten very divisive as far as the parties being more entrenched with one side or the other,” she said.
Such polarization may help Democrats and Republicans raise money from their pet special interest groups, but it puts at risk moderates from either party who could be challenged in their primaries by candidates with less nuanced views.
“We know that it’s beneficial for us to have Republicans and Democrats to work with [who] stand strong on the life issue,” Musgrave said. “For the pro-life cause to advance legislatively, it’s very important that we have pro-life Republicans and pro-life Democrats."
But those archetypes are more and more a dying breed with each passing year. Illinois Democrat Dan Lipinski was the lone member of Stupak’s pro-life-friendly Democratic coalition that the president failed to convince to vote for the ACA. Moreover, Lipinski, who represents the president’s adopted hometown of Chicago, was the only Democrat in the Illinois House delegation who voted against the health care overhaul.
Co-chairman of the Congressional Pro-life Caucus, he noted that pro-choice lobbying groups spent money against him in his 2012 primary. The popular fifth-term incumbent was able to brush off the opposition, but he suggests that not every member can be sanguine about intra-party challenges.
As Gallup surveys show the country becoming more opposed to abortion, the Democratic Party’s elected federal officials have moved in the opposite direction. Former president Bill Clinton and former vice president Al Gore were once pro-life. Senate Majority leader Harry Reid gave lip service to that position until quite recently. But Reid, like many of his fellow Democrats, has slowly shifted on the issue.
In 1980, the national party’s platform was changed to include language favorable to the pro-choice position. The new platform stated a woman had the right to choose whether to have a child and described abortion as a “fundamental right.”
During the 2012 Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., the party further expanded that platform plank to include support for women to undergo abortions “regardless of ability to pay.”
The pressure on pro-life Democrats had already intensified by then. Following the ACA enactment in 2010, the pro-life segment of the party suffered heavily in the party’s losses in that year’s midterm elections. The ramifications are still being felt.
“I certainly think that the whole health care debate and what happened there has really been harmful to the pro-life members of the Democratic Party,” Lipinski told RCP.
At a time when most of the conversation among political elites centers on the shrinking Republican brand, Lipinski and his life-minded brethren sense a threat looming over their party also. Nineteen years ago, a solid majority of Americans identified themselves in a Gallup survey as “pro-choice.” Notwithstanding Democratic victories in the last two national elections, that figure has now dipped below 50 percent.
“I think if the Democratic Party wants to widen its base, win more seats in … the House, we’re going to have to improve on more pro-life candidates and make it clear that there is a place for pro-life Democrats,” Lipinski said. “I’m here and I hope that more pro-life Democrats join me in Congress.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Dan Lipinski was the only House Democrat who voted against the health care overhaul. In fact, he was the only Democrat in the Illinois House delegation to vote against it.