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The Tragic Extinction of the Pro-Life Democrats

12:55 AM, Sep 5, 2012 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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Four years ago in Denver, the group Democrats for Life hosted an event. A tiny cadre of anti-abortion Democrats assembled in a hotel conference room and were treated to a hopeful talk led by Senator Bob Casey and Representatives Lincoln Davis and Heath Shuler. The pro-life caucus was a minority in the party, they realized, but it was a crucial bloc and it would not be left behind by a President Obama, he of the purple states and the hope and change. A new era for pro-life Democrats was just around the corner. 

Democratic Donkey

It turns out, they were right about it being a new epoch. Except that instead of making a place in the sun for pro-life Democrats, the Obama presidency was more like a meteor-strike, triggering an ice age and driving the species to extinction.

So when Democrats for Life rallied in Charlotte yesterday morning, it was striking that the group couldn’t muster a single sympathetic office-holder. The panel consisted of two representatives who were ousted in 2010 (Bart Stupak and Kathy Dahlkemper) and two academics (Catholic University’s Stephen Schneck and St. Thomas’s Thomas Berg). It was a sad, but revealing, presentation.

For pro-life Democrats there has always been tension between their opposition to abortion and their support of liberal social justice programs. They have sought to square the circle by constructing a “whole life” rationale in which they claim it is society’s job to protect not just the unborn, but the poor and the vulnerable at every stage of life. As such, they’ve weaved the morality of opposing abortion into support for a whole tapestry of liberal causes: everything from Head Start to welfare to immigration reform. It takes some doing, but nearly every liberal cause can be pulled into the whole-life cause. Various panelists yesterday morning, for instance, noted that support of campaign finance reform, opposition to the Iraq war, and “environmental justice” (whatever that is) are all essentially pro-life issues.

By not limiting themselves to the narrow topic of abortion, pro-life Democrats were able to make an uneasy peace with their party. The Democratic mainstream might not give any ground on abortion rights, but pro-life Dems could rationalize their existence by pointing to the good that liberal social welfare policies were doing for all of the souls lucky enough not to get aborted. What made this arrangement possible was the fact that there was a reasonably stable status quo on abortion—there was no immediate mechanism for overturning Roe, but neither was the government actively expanding abortion rights.

And then came Obamacare.

President Obama forced pro-life Democrats into a position where they had to make one end of their whole-life spectrum subordinate to the other. And when the chips were down, the pro-life Dems agreed to compromise on abortion in order to press forward with the rest of the social justice agenda. Suddenly, the tail was wagging the dog. And voters noticed.

Stupak and Dahlkemper were just two of the casualties the pro-life Democratic caucus suffered in 2010. (Davis was also ousted, along with Jim Oberstar, Steve Driehaus, Travis Childers, and Bobby Bright—all of whom received help at some point from Democrats for Life.) Yet even in defeat, they remained conflicted to the point of incoherence.

Stupak, for instance, told the audience that he remains “a proud and faithful pro-life Democrat” and called Obamacare “the greatest program since Medicare and Social Security.” Dahlkemper likewise defended the law maintaining that “people who are radically anti-government, who are pro-birth only, will not reduce the incidence of abortion in this country.”

At the same time, they seemed indignant at some of Obamacare’s particulars. Asked about the HHS decision to force religious non-profits to pay for contraception, abortifacients, and sterilization, Stupak exploded:

I’m perplexed and disappointed having negotiated the executive order with the president. Not only does that HHS mandate violate the executive order, it also violates statutory law—if you go back to the Omnibus Budget Act of 2009 passed by a Democratic House and a Democratic Senate, and signed by President Obama, that’s probably the most specific, articulate language that no funds can be used to promote abortion . . . It’s illegal.

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