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Why Pro-Life Democrats are disappearing

March for Life 2015
41st MARCH FOR LIFE RALLY in front of the US Supreme Court on 1st Street between Maryland Avenue and East Capitol Street, NE, Washington DC on Thursday afternoon, 22 January 2015 by Elvert Barnes Protest Photography. Photo via Flickr Creative Commons.

In 2010, 40 pro-life Democrats blocked Obamacare until they received a promise that no funds would be used for abortions. Today, there are only two pro-life Democrats serving in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Why the sudden extinction of pro-life Democrats in Congress? The story starts with that vote on Obamacare.

Six years ago, Democrats held a large majority in Congress. About 40 (or 15 percent of the caucus) voted pro-life on abortion-related legislation. There was another 20 who voted against federal funding of abortion.

Many of these legislators represented districts that were part of the old Democratic coalition that included Catholic rust-belt districts and conservative-leaning districts in the South. While the Republicans had become nearly completely pro-life over the previous two decades, Democrats retained a sizeable voting bloc that split from the party on abortion.

When Obamacare came up for a vote in the House, it needed to pass as-is, without any changes or amendments. Even so, pro-life Democrats refused to support the bill without explicit language prohibiting the funding of abortions. Without their support, the bill would not pass. Eventually, pro-life Democrats accepted President Obama’s pledge to issue an executive order banning funding of abortions. The bill passed, and Obamacare became law.

But that was just the beginning of the fight for these Democrats.

To pro-life organizations, a vote for the Affordable Care Act (ACA) was a vote for federal funding of abortion. The ACA lacked any prohibition on funding abortions, and pro-life activists did view the executive order as a sufficient guarantee.

Pro-life organizations openly targeted their former allies. They campaigned against them in the primaries and the general election, claiming that they had flipped their position on abortion.

After the 2010 election, the number of pro-life Democrats had been cut in half. While Democrats lost in a historic landslide, pro-life Democrats lost at a higher rate than others in the party.

In 2012, the remaining twenty or so pro-life Democrats faced another hurdle: redistricting. Most of these legislators came from districts that were more conservative than the typical Democratic district. Republicans in state legislatures were able to make changes in these districts to move them from reddish-blue to blueish-red. The result was another halving of pro-life Democrats.

Of the eight or so left, most retired or lost in 2014.

Today there are two solidly pro-life Democrats in the House: Rep. Daniel Lipinski (D-IL) and Rep. Collin Peterson (D-MN). Lipinski (who happens to be a political science Ph.D.) is a Catholic who represents parts of Chicago and its suburbs. Peterson, an ELCA Lutheran, represents Minnesota’s large, rural district in western Minnesota. About half of the time, they are joined Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-TX).

Democrats for Life are endorsing only four candidates this year. Besides Lipinski and Peterson, Democrats for Life are backing just one other candidate for the House: Jerry Cannon in Michigan’s District 1. The group is also backing Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV), one of the few pro-life Democrats in the Senate.

The Republican party has been almost completely pro-life for years. There are only two pro-choice Republicans: Rep. Robert Dold (R-IL) and Richard Hanna (R-NY). There are a few other members that sometimes join them, such as on the vote for 20-week ban on abortion.

As a result, partisanship is now a near-perfect predictor of how members of Congress vote on abortion-related bills.

One implication of this quick extinction is that we are likely to see Republicans and Democrats in the electorate also become more divided on issues of abortion, contraception, and reproductive rights. Political science has found that when elected officials and party leaders become divided on issues, the parties in voting booth follow along. There was evidence of this evolution around abortion twenty years ago, but many pro-life Democrats were able to keep their seats in Congress. Now that they’re all-but-gone, voting for a Democrat will almost always mean a vote for a pro-choice candidate.

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About the author

Tobin Grant

@TobinGrant blogs for Religion News Service at Corner of Church and State, a data-driven conversation on religion and politics. He is a political science professor at Southern Illinois University and associate editor of the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion.


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  • Interesting that one relevant group is somehow missing from this article.
    It’s just an itty-bitty oversight, hardly worth mentioning… Right, women?

  • Single issue voting is hard on a democracy. It’s given us a dysfunctional Congress, unable to compromise to get things done, and a whole class of people in the electorate who would vote for the devil if they were sure he was pro-life. This year they may get their chance. I suspect there are many fewer single issue voters who base their vote solely on the candidates pro-choice record.

  • The Republican party is hardly prolife considering that its pro-violence (war, guns, capital punishment), rapacious capitalism, and anti-health care/family planning policies slaughter countless people, endanger women’s lives, and drive women to abortion as well. It just lies and says it is to trick conservative Christians into voting for its candidates.

  • The abortion issue always boils down to men trying to control women. It has never worked and it will never work in the future. The whole “traditional family values” crap is a dog whistle for “women barefoot and subservient.”

  • Democrats are far more supportive of reproductive choice, church-state separation, religious liberty, civil rights, and social justice than today’s Republicans. The pro-choice position is supported by both the Bible (Gen 1:27 and 2:7 support personhood at birth and the Bible does not condemn abortion) and science (pre-28/32 week fetuses are not capable of the functions of personhood and over 99% of abortions are performed well before 20 weeks, 90% by 13 weeks). The anti-choice position is a product of conservative religion-related misogyny. — Edd Doerr (arlinc,org)

  • Remember that until now “pro-life” is only pro-birth. We have to consider feeding that child, schooling it, clothing it, seeing to its health. Otherwise we are remiss as a society and we ought to own up to it.

  • And there’s also the woman’s life that has to be considered: lost time at work and limited work duty, childcare costs, lost personal and professional opportunities (for 20 years!), physical and emotional pain & suffering, and other things I can’t even think of.

    And then there are the issues regarding her rights, her privacy, her choice,…

  • One thing missing from the story – I would be curious to see the numbers:
    When David failed to get Uriah the Hittite to lie with Bathsheba so that all would think the child she was carrying was Uriah’s, he instructed that Uriah be placed at the front of the battle and the army pull back to leave Uriah to die. How many of the 20 who were not re-elected in 2010 (or of the 40 total) were all but abandoned by the party to be defeated in the election? How many did not even make it to the election? At least one (Bart Stupak, if memory serves) decided the week after the ACA vote to decline seeking re-election. I have no proof (I live in the middle of a corn field, 750 miles outside the Beltway and 450 miles from Stupak’s district, so I’m not “in the know”), but quite frankly it seemed like the perfect scenario of “If you vote with us now, we will give you the opportunity to finish your term in peace and not seek re-election. If you fight us on this one, you will lose all hope of a political future as we bury you in a humiliating loss during a primary challenge for your seat when you try to run.”

    So how much was the opposition of pro-life groups, and how much was attrition-by-starvation by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee?

    The absence of the mention of those who chose not to run, no mention of the work of the DCCC, and the placing of blame in the 2010 election attrition squarely at the feet of pro-life organizations smacks of a lack of balance in the journalism. I would have hoped for better.

  • One of the deceptions is in the way the anti-choice crowd has named itself: “pro-life.” They are not “pro-life” because they do not support what makes it possible for those women who’s wombs they want to control to make a decision to bear young they cannot care for.

    True “pro-life” is pro supporting women in getting contraceptives, in assuring adequate health care for women, children, and families, in feeding the hungry and and providing shelter for those who have no home. True “pro-life” would vigorously support adequate leave policies for pregnant women and for parents to care for new borns and for caring for children when they are sick.

    I think the pro-life folks need to be named for what they stand for: “pro-birth.” They don’t really care about the child, they care about a child being born and then they forget about it.

  • Who was president when we got in to WWI? Who was president when we got in to WWII? Who was president when we got in to Korea? Who was president when we got in to Vietnam? Did bill Clinton drop bombs on Iraq? Did Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, and Harry Reid vote to go to war in Iraq? Who was it who decided to secede from the Union and start the civil war? Was that the slave owning DEMOCRATS? Who was it … Listen. Are you uneducated or just pathetic? Democrats are the war mongers. Democrats are the racists. Democrats are actually performing human sacrifice to satan via planned parenthood. Democrats are pure evil.

  • A war mongering democrat accused republicans of being war mongers and you agreed…. LOL. Pathetic. and sick.

  • According to String Theory, the world is flat… at least in the 1st, 2nd, 5th, and 7th dimensions. The world is not perceivably flat in the 3rd dimension where I exist and sense, but yes. Absolutely, the world is flat.

    And, just to make you aware: Murdering babies is wrong. The thought that someone like you exists who is unaware that murdering babies is wrong is simply disturbing. You are way sicker than hitler.

  • Of course murdering babies if wrong, but abortion is not killing babies.It is ending pregnancies before there is a human “person”. Well over 99% of abortions occur before personhood is possible after 28-32 weeks. If the 57 million abortions per year worldwide is a problem, why isn’t “God” doing something about it? Hmm.

  • You are sicker than hitler. Murdering babies is wrong… in fact, it’s evil. You disgust me. And, when you burn in hell for being so evil, ask whomever might listen what God might be doing about your evil.

  • Adoptees. Yes. Adoptees and survivors of abortion are missing from this article. And, theirs really is the only voice in all of this worth listening to because thiers is the only voice that speaks any truth of this matter. Abortion is evil. Murdering babies is wrong. You pro-infanticide crowd are sicker than hitler.

  • Some people believe life (“soul”, “living spirit”, “personhood”) begins at birth.
    Some believe life begins at 26 weeks.
    Some believe life begins at 20 weeks.
    Some believe life begins when fetal movement can be seen.
    Some believe life begins when a fetal heartbeat can be heard.
    Some believe life begins when an embryo attaches to a uterus.
    Some believe life begins when an ovum is fertilized.
    Some believe life begins when an ovum exists.

    One’s beliefs are not more valid than another’s.
    One’s beliefs do not trump another’s.

    One’s beliefs do not govern another’s.

    One has every right to hold oneself to one’s own spiritual/existential beliefs.
    One has no right to hold others to one’s own spiritual/existential beliefs.

    This may or may not be your belief.
    But this is America.

    P.S. —

    Have you noticed the recent increase in the volume and intensity of hateful bile being posted here by the self-appointed “moral superiors” of people they don’t even know? In all the time I’ve spent reading and posting to articles at the RNS website — usually a venue of mostly civil discourse — I’ve never before seen so much vicious vomiting of vile venom by so many wolves in sheep’s clothing.

    I hope these people wise up soon about how they’re presenting themselves, and how their contemptibly contemptuous tirades could possibly bring anyone — anyone at all — closer to their position.

    We have both made our positions clear, bruce lancaster. I wish you well.

  • You are sicker than hitler. I don’t care if you take my position. if you want to burn in hell for being an evil nazi, that’s up to you. this is America after all. You can say or do whatever disgusting sick nasty stuff you want…. you are free to do so. But, don’t expect to never suffer consequences for being evil. That would just be stupid.

  • Not only do our beliefs differ, but so do our values. I believe in treating others with respect; obviously, you do not. This is my last reply to you.

  • You should just block me… but then that would require actually knowing something and not just sitting there seething with evil. You are sicker than hitler.

  • You have a hard time writing without using the term You are sicker than hitler. It looks like your writing skills leave little merit and are filled with frustration.

  • Murdering babies is wrong. Having to tell a human that murdering babies is wrong is really quite surprising. My reaction to that surprise is dismay and disgust. You are seriously sick. You are, in fact, sicker than Hitler was.