A Home For The Pro-Life Movement (Beyond The Republican Party)

Charles Camosy Professor, Fordham University
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Erick Erickson’s headline didn’t mince words: “The Pro-Life Movement Should Stop Being Whores of the Republican Party.” Ross Douthat suggested that the GOP merely “poses” as pro-life. Mollie Hemingway noted that this was just the latest Republican “betrayal” of pro-lifers.

What could produce such strong language from people so solidly on the right? An inexplicable and cowardly GOP retreat from the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act. Supported by 64 percent of Americans, 71 percent of women, and even half of Democrats, it was and remains a political no-brainer. The law is even more popular than the much-touted Keystone Pipeline.

And yet, as Hemingway also pointed out, Republican leadership just wasn’t willing to fight for it. National Journal did some outstanding reporting on how the failure went down, and the details aren’t pretty — especially for pro-lifers. Said one member who just wanted the issue to go away, “We’ve got several bigger issues coming up next week and beyond.” Telling.

But is the latest pro-life failure of the national GOP really that surprising? This is the party of small federal government. Of privacy, choice and autonomy. Of keeping others out of decisions between a patient and their doctor. If this rhetoric sounds familiar, it’s because these are classic pro-choice values. Like George Costanza of Seinfeld fame, Republicans “do the opposite” of their instincts. At least when it comes to abortion.

It is an odd accident of history that pro-lifers ended up hitching their wagons to the Republican political machine. Ronald Reagan signed the law broadly legalizing abortion in California. George H.W. Bush upset pro-lifers many times, including when he nominated reliably pro-choice justice David Souter to the Supreme Court. Mitt Romney was solidly pro-choice until he decided to run for president. And now Chris Christie is having questions asked about his own interestingly-timed conversion from choice to life.

Democrats are no better, of course. They stand for equal rights for the most vulnerable in our culture. They are the voice for the voiceless, and are suspicious of autonomy and choice of the powerful when it is used to dominate and marginalize the weak. Except on abortion. Here, like Republicans, they “do the opposite.” Key figures like Ted Kennedy, Jesse Jackson, and Joe Biden were all pro-life until they had to get in line with national party orthodoxy.

Why the incoherency of the two parties? The Costanza effect is, well, effective. Consider Juan Williams’ important insight:

Their strategy is all about a desire to keep the conversation locked in failure. Abortion is a premium “wedge” issue for producing money and votes … Political strategists used these debates to excite their base voters, pro or con, but also as a form of negative advertising to attack the character of opposing candidates. … [abortion fits] into the same fixed pattern of debate with the same prescribed divisions being held in place by the gravity of big money and power to excite voters.

But there is another way. Serious legal protection for prenatal children, along with adequate social support for women, will only take place when pro-lifers can form a broad coalition across party lines.

I often hear traditional pro-lifers deride the very idea of a pro-life Democrat, but the numbers tell a different story. As Kristen Day points out, “Democrats once held a 292-seat majority in the U.S House with 110 pro-life Democrats.”

As recently as 2009 a full quarter of the Democrat caucus was pro-life. A 2011 Gallup poll found 27 percent of Democrats are pro-life, with 44 percent claiming that abortion should be legal in “few or no circumstances.” This while 28 percent of Republicans are pro-choice, with 63 percent claiming that some abortions should remain legal.

So what happened to all these pro-life Democrats? The GOP singled them out for defeat in the 2010 midterms and devastated their caucus. Republicans had their issue back.

But this has not been good for national pro-life legislation. The Pain-Capable Act — even if it is eventually passed by the House — doesn’t have the votes the overcome a filibuster or veto in the Senate. It would be different if pro-lifers were able to push for (life-friendly) progressive amendments to the bill. What about mandatory paid maternity leave? Subsidized child care? Increased legal protections and benefits for mothers at work? These proposals are simply the right things to do for women, period. But they would also make it easier for women to choose to keep their babies — along with giving moderate Democrats political cover to vote for the bill.

But as long as pro-lifers are “all in” with the GOP in a way which precludes a bipartisan approach, this kind of compromise simply isn’t going to happen. The Pain-Capable Act will fail, and we will hear a familiar Republican plea to pro-lifers: “Please just give us more money and support for 2016 and then we promise to enact your agenda.”

Yeah. We’ve heard that one before.

Charles C. Camosy (@nohiddenmagenta) is Associate Prof. of Christian Ethics at Fordham University. He is author of several books, including the newly-released Beyond the Abortion Wars: A Way Forward for a New Generation.