In the aftermath of Scott Brown’s historic victory in Massachusetts, some observers were quick to ask a hard question: did pro-life organizations and individuals sell their souls in campaigning for Brown, a pro-choice Republican and supporter of Roe v. Wade? In other words, did political expediency trump ideological commitment for pro-lifers?
Such a charge is somewhat disconcerting to those who keep track of this debate because the accusation came from the same liberal camp that so-often has criticized the pro-life movement in the past for not lowering their standards and for rigidly neglecting the quest to find common ground or incremental solutions to the ongoing tragedy of abortion. And yet, after Massachusetts, these same figures are now complaining that the pro-life movement betrayed its principles in taking Brown’s side in this nationally visible race, by supporting a candidate who advocates both incremental and common ground solutions on abortion.
Certainly these critics do make a valid observation when they point out that during the post-Brown celebrations many leaders of the pro-life movement sometimes overlooked the amount of disagreement that at times exists between them and Brown on life issues. However, this oversight was less due to expediency but rather was born from relief: for the first time in over a year, the pro-life movement had truly caught a break.
Consider the history: after the election of Barack Obama (a staunch supporter of abortion-on-demand) and after heavy losses among pro-life representatives in both chambers of Congress (including the emergence of a supermajority Democrat Senate that strongly leans pro-choice), together with the juggernaut of a health care reform bill containing huge federal subsidies for abortion providers—the pro-life movement had been having a hard go of it, and was more than ready to hear something other than the worst possible news.
But did the pro-life movement, and Catholics in particular, sell their souls to help Brown win, and fight for the better outcome?
The most common charge against the pro-life movement these days, especially when that movement is involved in politics and elections, is that it is actually a front of the Republican Party (never mind the fact that the pro-choice movement lumps the vast majority of its money and resources behind the Democratic party candidates). This pro-Republicanism is how liberals explain the pro-life movement’s support of both John McCain in the 2008 presidential election, and their incongruous support of Scott Brown (a pro-choicer) in the 2010 Massachusetts senate race: they’re both Republicans.
But the common thread between these two decisions is far more disarmingly simple: Brown and McCain, while not perfect from the perspective of the pro-life movement, were better pro-life choices than their respective alternatives.
In the case of the general election between Barack Obama and John McCain in 2008, the pro-life movement was confronted, on the one hand, with an on-the-record 100 percent pro-abortion Democrat candidate (who even supported late-term abortions and promised a group of abortion supporters to sign the Freedom of Choice Act). On the other hand, the pro-life movement had the option of supporting a Republican candidate who ran on the pro-life platform of the Republican party, chose a highly-visible pro-life Vice-President, and could be reasonably expected to support the nomination of pro-life justices to the Supreme Court.
In the case of Massachusetts after the primaries had concluded this year, the pro-life movement was faced with two candidates who supported the status quo of Roe v. Wade, only the Democrat Coakley has been an activist for pro-abortion causes, received money from pro-abortion organizations, publicly denied the rights of Catholic health care workers to conscience protection, and would re-secure the Democrats’ 60th-vote supermajority to pass a health care plan that included huge federal subsidies for taxpayer-funded abortions. Her Republican opponent Brown supported parental notification rights, supported the conscience rights of Catholic health care workers, strongly opposed federal funding of abortions both at the state and federal level, and was never given (to my knowledge) a penny from a pro-abortion organization’s coffers.
One does not have too look for a deeper partisan motivation to see why a pro-life individual or organization, in both cases, would choose McCain over Obama, and Brown over Coakley. Indeed, the experience of electing Obama has taught the pro-life movement several hard lessons about being saddled with the greater of two evils when you fail to settle for the lesser. Obama has done nothing concrete to reduce the number of abortions in this country, despite his assurances that he would do so. If this ever was a personal priority of his, it clearly is not one now. He has meanwhile overturned a policy that prevented international funding of abortions. Obama has also never seriously addressed the federal abortion subsidies in the health care bills (despite the widespread attention given to this issue by the press) or their lack of rigorous conscience clause protections.
Even more absurdly, some armchair theologians have tries to claim that Catholic pro-lifers were hypocrites for supporting the pro-choice candidate Brown, but not supporting the pro-choice candidate Obama. They miss what makes the two examples completely different: in the election of Obama there was a candidate who claimed (and could be reasonably presumed) to be pro-life: McCain. In the election of Brown, there was no candidate who claimed (or could be reasonably presumed) to be pro-life (Coakley was actually worse). These same armchair theologians (betraying a distinctly partisan selective-ignorance of the facts) ignored the reality that in both the Presidential election of 2008, and this senate race in 2010, the pro-life movement supported the more pro-life candidate (or, if you will, the less pro-abortion candidate).
Thus the awkward contradiction between how Catholic and other pro-life voters behaved in 2008 and 2010 is not between those who, supporting both McCain and Brown, consistently voted for the candidate who would, one could reasonable conclude, do more for the cause of the unborn, but between Catholic and other pro-life Democrats who continually justify voting for the candidate that, according to all the publicly-available evidence, will actually do less for the cause of the unborn (voting for Obama and Coakley).
Or to put it another way: Consistent Catholics and other pro-life voters always vote for the candidate that they believe will best help unborn human life, while partisan Catholics and other pro-life voters vote for their party first, and then figure out which argument they want to cite to justify that party-line vote afterwards.
It is an unfortunate diagnosis of our current political landscape that, most of the time, the issue of defending unborn human life must appear “partisan” because consistent Catholics and other pro-life voters have fewer options in the Democrat party than the Republican. While the pro-life movement is all in favor of changing this status quo, it has also learned that one of the best ways to see change occur is for political candidates of both parties to understand that they seriously risk losing pro-life voters if they take extreme positions as candidates in their abortion views.
Democrats, for their part, could very easily remove this sticking liability from their elections if they, as a party and as individual candidates, embraced pro-life positions. In the meantime, their oftentimes radical views on this fundamental moral issue continue to lose them support—and impassioned support—from an important constituency of American voters.
If liberal supporters of Coakley and those who fear that Obama’s agenda will be seriously imperiled by the upcoming fall elections want to take any lesson from Massachusetts, it should not be that the pro-life movement has changed, or has sold its soul. The lesson should be that pro-lifers will consistently support the candidate who pledges to do more for the unborn. And the more a candidate of either party pledges to advocate the nonpartisan issue of defending unborn human life, the more they will receive consistent pro-life support.
If anyone tells you different, chances are they voted for Coakley.
Thomas Peters authors the American Papist Blog at CatholicVoteAction.org. He also works for the American Principles Project. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.