There’s been a lot of controversy within the Democratic base over the Stupak Amendment, which we’ll be covering more later. Essentially, it’s an amendment by the so-called “pro-life Democrats” in the House and would place de facto restrictions on abortion accessibility if it passes both chambers of Congress. Without going into the amendment itself much, I wanted to look at a point this raises on the role of the Choice issue in the Democratic Party and how it relates to Democratic candidacies.
I obviously can’t speak for all base Democrats, but I think many of us made the critical mistake of underestimating the potential influence of the anti-choice/pro-life caucus within our party in Congress. For example, Sen. Bob Casey Jr. (D-PA, elected 2006) has been a pretty good Senator so far, but everyone knew he ran as a “pro-life Democrat,” but most of us especially outside Pennsylvania probably thought very little on that point. Of course, some liberal pro-choice activists were rightly worried because Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey, the major 1992 Supreme Court revision of Roe v. Wade, refers to Bob Casey Sr. who was then the Governor of Pennsylvania and supported a fairly strict abortion restriction law — and it was reasonable to wonder if the father’s views were shared by the junior Senator from Pennsylvania.
As it turns out, yes that appears to be the case:
Now some Senate Democrats, including Bob Casey of Pennsylvania and Ben Nelson of Nebraska, are pushing to incorporate the same [Stupak] restrictions in their own bill. Senior Senate Democratic aides said the outcome was too close to call.
I sincerely hope that the Senate does not pass the Casey-Nelson version of Stupak into the Senate health care reform bill (and the signs suggest that it won’t succeed). But that’s not even what I’m looking at here.
The problem as I see it is that I and many others assumed that at the federal legislative level, abortion law was largely a settled matter for the most part. I know many activists who are dedicated in particular to this issue didn’t share that view, but I’m willing to admit they were right and I was wrong on this. I figured that if the Republicans had used nearly uninterrupted control of the whole Congress for twelve years and the White House and the House for six years, but had failed to outlaw abortion, then it was pretty much secure. There were restrictions such as the misleadingly named “partial-birth abortion ban,” but the Republicans were upfront about their hope of banning abortion and they failed. I assumed that pro-Choice Democrats, who do form a majority of the caucus, would be able to keep the “pro-Life” Democrats in check.
So for Casey and other candidates, I figured there was probably very little chance for them to put their views to a vote, and if it did come up I forgot that pro-life Republicans and Democrats would be able to vote in unison to form a majority as they did on the Stupak House amendment. It almost seemed like some Democratic candidates who took pro-life pledges might just have been pandering with no intention of casting damaging votes. And I think I was wrong.
That leads us to a question on how to view pro-life candidates in future. Obviously there are a lot of Democrats who have more conservative opinions on abortion, and that means there’s a role for pro-life candidates. On the other hand, and more importantly, I think a majority of the Democratic base supports the right to choose and women are certainly a majority of the Democratic Party’s membership nationally. The Stupak Amendment is a political problem for the party because it makes it look like the party is “throwing women under the bus,” as many have said in the past few days.
I think we may have reached a day of reckoning on this issue. The Democratic Party is going to face severe electoral difficulties if it doesn’t quickly resolve its position on abortion rights. In future election cycles, I think that activists, the ones who donate their time and money to elect Democrats, are going to be extremely wary of engaging with candidates who oppose the right to choose. We’ve now seen that they’re a real threat to the right to choose, not just a stated or theoretical threat. This is an intra-party policy contradiction that the party leaders have kicked down the road for years. That doesn’t look like an option anymore. Unfortunately, this has never been an issue that party leaders like to discuss openly, even though it needs to be discussed.
This post originally appeared on Starboard Broadside.