WASHINGTON — Control of the U.S. Senate, potential nominations to the U.S. Supreme Court, and two historic ballot initiatives in two states are among the stakes for pro-life voters in the 2014 midterm elections.
On a national level, the eyes of pro-life activists have turned toward the control of the U.S. Senate, where pro-life legislation for the most part has not been able to come to the floor under Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).
“Most pro-lifers would recognize that the biggest prize in the entire election cycle is the United States Senate,” Carol Tobias, president of National Right to Life Committee, said. “Harry Reid has blocked any and all pro-life measures from coming to the floor for a vote, and we need to make that change to pass those bills.”
However, Tobias acknowledged that President Barack Obama was unlikely to sign any pro-life measures that made it outside of Congress.
“We want to put him [Obama] on notice that he is going to have to defend his position of killing unborn babies,” she said.
Tobias noted that the Senate has not taken up the No Taxpayer Funding of Abortion Act, which would apply Hyde amendment-like restrictions across the board and address the Affordable Care Act’s subsidizing of abortion in health plans.
“Another piece of legislation held up in the Senate is the Pain Capable Unborn Child Protection Act,” she said. “The House has already passed that bill. … It has two-thirds support of the public. We think that should be an easy one.”
Control of the House is expected to remain firmly in Republican hands, where the large majority of its members identify as pro-life. According to Democrats for Life of America’s website, only four pro-life House Democrats remain as part of the chamber’s pro-life majority. In the Senate, three Democrats are listed as being pro-life.
The Senate is divided between 53 Democrats and two independents caucusing with them, and 45 Republicans. But nine closely contested races could hand majority control of the chamber to the Republicans’ and their pro-life leadership. Depending on how the races turn out, it could also lead to a bipartisan pro-life majority in the Senate.
Part of what is pushing the Republican advantage is the public’s dissatisfaction with Obama’s performance on the economy, and his overall job performance. According to an ABC/Washington Post poll, the president’s approval rating has fallen to 40%, and 66% of likely voters said the country was going in the “wrong track” with majorities disapproving of the president’s handling of the economy, the health-care law, crises such as Ebola and terrorism, the battle with Islamic State jihadists, international affairs and immigration.
The new poll suggests the president’s woes with the public are having a toxic effect on the Democratic Party brand in this election cycle — similar to the negative effect of George W. Bush’s effect on Republicans in 2006, where his plummeting approval cost them control of Congress.
According to the poll, registered voters take a dim view of both parties. Only 33% see the GOP favorably, while 39% approve of Democrats. But for Democrats, the poll notes, this is the first time in 30 years that their favorability rating among voters has dipped below 50%.
Ten Senate races rank as tossups between Republicans and Democrats: Colorado, Iowa, Kentucky, Georgia, Louisiana, Arkansas, Alaska, Kansas, North Carolina and New Hampshire. Only in New Hampshire do both the Republican and Democrat candidates support legal abortion.
“There are several [races] where, in these cases, the Republican candidates are strongly pro-life, and the Democratic candidates would support abortion for all nine months of pregnancy,” said Tobias.
Charmaine Yoest, president of Americans United for Life, added that four or five of these races are “nail-biters” with their own local dynamics, but can be influenced by events that have nothing to do with the issues on the ballot, such as the Ebola health scare.
“You never really know what is going to happen when you have all of these races really within the margin of error,” she said.
Yoest said AUL is non-partisan, and supports the election of pro-life Democrats as well as pro-life Republicans — but noted that in the case of the Senate, getting pro-life legislation passed depends on Republicans gaining control of the chamber.
She said AUL has been concentrating on getting out the vote, which could tip the balance in these tight races.
“As I see it, the real question is who can get their troops out,” she said.
“Whichever side gets the people out is going to be a huge factor.”
Supreme Court Nominations
None of the U.S. Supreme Court justices have indicated they have any plans to retire soon, but at least three are 78 or older, and their replacements could very well determine the future of the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion nationally. Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a firm Roe supporter, is 81 years old; Justice Antonin Scalia, a Roe opponent, is 78; and the unpredictable swing vote of the court, Anthony Kennedy, is also 78.
But change to Republican control of the Senate, which confirms presidential nominations to the judiciary, could impact the President’s nominations not only to the Supreme Court in the event of a vacancy, but also his nominations to the appellate courts.
Father Frank Pavone, national director of Priests for Life, noted that many decisions touching on the right to life are made by federal judges, particularly at the appeals court level.
“The Senate also confirms those men and women,” he added. “The Senate can change hands, and so it is important especially for Catholics to look at whether there is a Senate race in my state, and if so, you get right down to the business of deciding who are the ones that share our values and who are the ones that don’t.”
Important Ballot Questions
Two state ballot initiatives dealing with abortion could also have an impact on the wider pro-life movement.
Voters in Tennessee and North Dakota will decide on pro-life amendments to their respective constitutions to protect their efforts to enact pro-life legislation.
Tennessee’s Amendment 1 would overturn the state Supreme Court’s decision in Planned Parenthood v. Sundquist that declared the state Constitution’s right to privacy protects access to abortion.
“That [decision] has been used to strike down almost every pro-life law that Tennessee has passed, and it is preventing them from passing any more,” said Tobias.
Tobias said the amendment would allow them to pass parental involvement and informed consent laws, as well as preventing taxpayer funds from being used for abortion.
The North Dakota ballot initiative, Tobias explained, was an effort to head off any attempt by their courts to read into their constitution a right to abortion as happened in Tennessee. Measure 1 in North Dakota seeks to inoculate the state constitution from judges who would interpret the state constitution as guaranteeing a right to an abortion.
The Catholic Vote
Father Pavone said Catholics should pay careful attention to the 1998 U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops document Living the Gospel of Life.
“It is still just as valid today as ever,” Father Pavone said. “It is the most direct and most comprehensive statement of the bishops’ conference ever on political responsibility.”
Father Pavone noted that the document explains for Catholics the “hierarchy of issues” they have to be concerned with as Catholics, with the right to life as paramount.
“This is often lost in voter guides that simply list the issues, but don’t make any distinction,” he said. “The bishops are very clear and use the analogy of a house and they say, ‘look, the right to life is the foundation of every other right.’”
In fact, Bishop Tobin of Providence, R.I., remarked in an Oct. 16 column in the Rhode Island Catholic that the “field is narrow and the options are few” for the state’s Catholic voters. He suggested that Catholics could register their protest when they have no pro-life Democrat or Republican candidate to choose from on Nov. 4, by either writing in “Pope Francis” on the ballot or staying home.
He added it was more disturbing when the candidates are Catholic and support legal abortion.
“What a pathetic spectacle Catholic candidates present when, having to choose between Planned Parenthood and the Catholic Church, they choose Planned Parenthood, the largest provider of abortions in our nation,” he said.
Father Pavone said Priests for Life has a website for prayer around election time called electionprayer.com, as well as two online resources for pastors and the faithful called Politicalresponsibility.com and VoteProLifeCoalition.com. Both websites have practical resources and help clarify the legal limits for priests and churches about what they can say and do.
“We get all sorts of stories about people being chased out, but there’s no need to do that,” he said. “The church is not going to get in trouble when somebody else comes in and puts a flyer on the car.”
Father Pavone said that parishes could help by getting absentee ballots to the homebound, or bringing people to the polls on election day.
“It could be a beautiful, and totally non-partisan way, to help the people of God carry out what St. John Paul II and so many others have said on our political responsibilities.”
Peter Jesserer Smith is the Register’s Washington correspondent.