WASHINGTON — The voices of those taking part in the March for Life may finally be getting heard by those in the buildings they march past year after year in Washington, D.C.
In particular, their tenacity seems to be paying off in the Capitol and the Senate and House office buildings that stand near the Supreme Court, where Roe v. Wade was decided 37 years ago today.
Pro-life Republican and Democratic members of Congress believe the increasingly pro-life views of the public have finally gained traction in Congress, despite the pro-abortion views of many Democratic leaders in Congress and the administration. And abortion may be a critical issue in the mid-term elections this November.
The growing strength of the pro-life position in Congress became apparent last November when a group of 64 Democrats joined most Republicans in the House of Representatives to add an amendment to the health-care overhaul bill that barred the use of federal taxpayer funds for abortions. The vote “shocked” pro-abortion Democratic leaders in Congress, according to the namesake of the pro-life amendment.
Democratic leaders in Congress “ignored the pro-life issues until health care, and even then they didn’t listen to us until the last minute,” said Bart Stupak, D-Mich., the co-chairman of the Congressional Pro-Life Caucus, in an interview with the Register on the eve of the Jan. 22 March for Life in Washington.
The amendment to keep taxpayers from funding abortions — much maligned by pro-abortion advocates, Democratic leaders in Congress and President Obama — has brought pro-life issues “front and center” in Congress, Stupak said.
The abortion-funding restriction is one of the issues that tripped up the Democratic health-care overhaul because Stupak and a group of fellow pro-life Democrats vowed to oppose any final bill without it. The pro-life Democrats rejected a watered-down ban included in the Senate-passed version of the health-care overhaul.
The outlook for the massive health-care overhaul bill that included the abortion-funding language is poor to terminal because of the pro-life opposition and a range of other controversial provisions, Stupak said.
“It’s not going anywhere,” he said.
Rep. Dave Camp, R-Mich., told the Register that the vote to block public funding of elective abortions in the health-care bill demonstrates that it is “very much a rising issue” in Congress.
Likewise, Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., another member of the Pro-life Caucus, told the Register that the successful effort to strip abortion funding from the health-care bill showed that abortion is unexpectedly “taking a higher profile” in a Congress led by staunchly pro-abortion Democrats.
“That vote has shown the power of the issue” of abortion to galvanize pro-life supporters, Franks said.
The pro-life stand in the House of Representatives followed a May 2009 Gallup Poll that found for the first time a majority of Americans — 51% — described themselves as “pro-life,” which was the highest pro-life finding since the poll began in 1995. In contrast, only 42% of Americans described themselves as “pro-choice.”
More Abortion Challenges Coming
The growing strength of the pro-life position in Congress is not one that’s going to go away, even after the health-care debate, said the congressmen.
“The life issues are front and center now,” Stupak said.
The higher-profile pro-life legislators have faced tests of their resolve in this Congress even before the health-care overhaul debate, and they expect more congressional efforts to expand abortion before Congress adjourns at the end of the year.
The successful abortion fight in the health-care bill already has led congressional leaders to drop an effort to lift a long-standing abortion-funding ban for private plans that insure federal employees. Democratic leaders had slipped the abortion coverage for federal employees into an end-of-the-year department funding bill before pro-life members of Congress caught it and demanded its removal, said Tom McClusky, senior vice president of Family Research Council Action.
Additional abortion battles in Congress loom over the plans of pro-abortion members of Congress to write into law an Obama administration policy that allowed federal taxpayer funding to flow to overseas groups that perform abortions. Until now, the power to determine whether foreign abortion groups can receive federal funding has been left up to the sitting president. Previous Republican presidents have routinely reinstated the abortion-funding ban as one of their first acts in office, while Democrats, including Obama, lifted the ban as one of their first acts.
Pro-Life Position Gains Political Currency
Pro-life politicians and advocates also see the defense of the unborn as a popular position on an issue with a rising profile and one that would benefit them in the mid-term elections later this year.
“There is a lot of awareness [of abortion as a key political issue] that hasn’t been there in a while, especially on the Democratic side,” Stupak said.
Camp noted that pro-life members of Congress are watching to see if the abortion-funding effort re-emerges in any stripped-down health-care bill that Democratic leaders may try to advance in the wake of the collapse of the massive health-care legislation.
Abortion “will have a higher profile in the election if [pro-abortion advocates] change existing law” on abortion funding, said Camp, who sponsored the smaller-scale Republican health-care alternative.
The impact of abortion was felt in the recent Massachusetts Senate race. Republican Scott Brown shocked the Washington political establishment when he easily won election in a state that had not sent a Republican senator to Congress since 1972. His Democratic opponent, Martha Coakley, launched pointed pro-abortion attacks late in the race against Brown, who describes himself as pro-choice but has supported restrictions on abortion as a state senator. Coakley proudly described her earlier legal efforts to help minors obtain abortions over the objections of their parents and was endorsed by the pro-abortion advocacy group Emily’s List.
The state’s pro-life group, Massachusetts Citizens for Life, also threw its support to Brown’s campaign. Such support may be critical in many other congressional races later in the year, where a pro-life position can provide a candidate with a net gain of up to 5% of voters, said Karen Cross, political director of National Right to Life.
The polling in a growing number of congressional races has shown pro-life candidates, regardless of their party, improving as the national mood shifts in a more conservative direction, she said.
“The last two election cycles have been very discouraging, but this year it’s like Christmas every day” as new poll numbers are revealed, Cross said.
Franks agreed. In his view from Capitol Hill, the pro-life position is strengthening candidates.
Said Franks, “Pro-life candidates will run stronger and stronger as time goes on.”
Rich Daly writes from Washington.