WASHINGTON — In the decades following the Roe v. Wade decision, the pro-life movement has relied upon a bipartisan pro-life majority in the U.S. House of Representatives to protect its gains and hold back an expansion of legal abortion no matter which party controlled the House.
But the “blue wave” of the 2018 midterms has breached that historic firewall in the House and ushered in a new majority committed to the preservation or expansion of abortion access — a landmark victory in the 10-year strategy by Planned Parenthood and its allies to purge pro-life Democrats from Congress.
Democrats gained more than 30 seats, including only one pro-life Democrat, Ben McAdams of Utah, who defeated Rep. Mia Love, the pro-life Republican incumbent. He will join the three remaining Democrats in the House who identify as pro-life: Dan Lipinski of Illinois, Collin Peterson of Minnesota and Henry Cuellar of Texas.
Lipinski, the co-chairman of the House bipartisan Pro-Life Caucus, told the Register that the pro-life movement will now have to play defense, watching the appropriations process in Congress, including any attempt to roll back the Hyde Amendment, a legislative provision that prohibits taxpayer funding for elective abortion in cases other than rape, incest and if the life of the mother is endangered.
Lipinski, who is Catholic, indicated that how the House acts with abortion-related legislation will depend on the priorities of the incoming Democratic majority leadership. Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., is expected to be the next House Speaker. Pelosi is a Catholic who dissents from the Church’s teaching on abortion.
“We’re not going to be making any progress when it comes to the pro-life issue,” Lipinski said.
Now the pro-life movement has to rely on the U.S. Senate, where Republican gains have bolstered a pro-life majority that should empower President Donald Trump to nominate more constitutionalist judges to the federal bench, particularly the U.S. Supreme Court.
Robert George, Princeton professor of jurisprudence, told the Register that while he has been critical of Trump, the president has delivered on his May 2018 pledge to appoint constitutionalist judges (he also subsequently committed in September 2016 to nominate specifically pro-life justices to the U.S. Supreme Court). With the Senate’s pro-life majority, Trump has more freedom over the next two years to appoint federal judges, particularly to the U.S. Supreme Court in the event of a vacancy, he said.
But the Senate has not historically been a pro-life firewall, and Republicans will be playing defense again in 2020: “The pro-life movement in the next two years has to take back the House,” George said.
What Is in Play
The concern for some in this recent election is not only more Democrats, but far fewer pro-life Democrats than when the party last held a House majority.
Unlike the 2006 election that swept Democrats into power there, and the 2008 election that extended the party’s majority, Pelosi will not have a pro-life wing of her party in Congress to contend with that could join Republicans to block abortion-related legislation.
Approximately 40 pro-life Democrats, under the leadership of then-Rep. Bart Stupak of Michigan, had frustrated plans to massively expand abortion access through the Affordable Care Act for nearly two years, until reaching a compromise with President Barack Obama that saw an executive order apply Hyde Amendment-like language to the application of the law, but fell short of permanent legislation.
Stupak’s decision in March 2010 to accept the executive order in place of a legislated prohibition outraged pro-life leaders and voters. The subsequent 2010 midterm election saw pro-life Democrats in Congress fall to a mere handful, with most defeated pro-life Democrats caught between the anger of pro-life groups that felt betrayed and Planned Parenthood and its allies.
However, courtesy of Republican gains overall that delivered the House to their control, a pre-2018 House majority remained in the way of the abortion movement’s goal to advance key legislative objectives, including codifying Roe v. Wade in a manner that would erase all the pro-life gains made at the federal and state level since 1973.
The legislation, earlier called the Freedom of Choice Act and more lately referenced as the “Women’s Health Protection Act,” would effectively outlaw abortion waiting periods, informed-consent laws, partial-birth abortion bans, and any requirement or limitation that “singles out abortion services or makes abortion services more difficult to access.”
Without pro-abortion majorities in Congress, the legislation has proved unattainable. Abortion advocates could attain their goal if Democrats should obtain unified control of the government in 2020 or 2024.
In the interim, Planned Parenthood will no longer have to worry about efforts to strip its access to half a billion dollars in federal funding. And the Democratic House leadership is likely to green-light legislative attempts to allow federal funding of abortion without Hyde Amendment protections.
“It is definitely troubling to consider what this pro-abortion House majority will do,” said Mallory Quigley, communications director for the Susan B. Anthony List, noting that they will have to make sure the Hyde Amendment is part of any spending bill coming out of the House. “Nancy Pelosi has said that they will do everything they can to thwart the president’s agenda, and, of course, a big part of his agenda has been pro-life.”
Quigley said abortion was not the reason that Americans voted for Democrats to take the House, and it would be a “mistake for Democrats to push forward an abortion agenda” that Americans do not agree with, such as taxpayer funding of abortion.
Pro-Life Majority’s Effectiveness
Matthew Green, a politics professor at The Catholic University of America and a specialist on congressional leadership, told the Register that a major shift has taken place since the 1990s, and today the “correlation between party and position on abortion is almost perfect.”
However, he explained, the presence of nominally pro-life or pro-abortion majorities does not necessarily translate into major legislation on the life issues being passed. Parties that do not have full control of government end up in “symbolic vote-taking” that pleases the base, but such gestures often stop once they actually have to govern.
“The perspectives of parties change when they have unified control of government, as opposed to when they don’t,” he said. The GOP House passed a flurry of pro-life legislation during the Obama years that had no chance of becoming law, and Green said he expected House Democrats might follow a similar pattern.
Green said the GOP was overall ineffective in passing major abortion-related legislation in this past Congress, other than rolling back abortion-related regulations from the Obama era.
“It’s not clear how big a priority it was, to be honest,” he said. He said the GOP’s major legislative focuses this past Congress were replacing the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”), which failed, and then passing tax cuts, before heading into the election cycle.
The GOP never made good on its pledge to defund Planned Parenthood of a half-billion dollars in government largesse. Party leaders drew criticism from pro-life advocates for failing in multiple opportunities to bypass the 60-vote majority needed to overcome a Democratic filibuster through “reconciliation” — a legislative procedure requiring only a simple majority in the House and Senate to address budgetary legislation. However, Republican leadership declined to use the legislative tactic in a stand-alone bill.
“Had they been willing to fight harder on the issue, I think they would have had a shot” at defunding the abortion-industry giant, George said. He pointed out that defunding Planned Parenthood would not have only dealt Planned Parenthood a critical blow, it might have helped loosen its grip on the Democratic Party and given some more breathing room for the pro-life wing to rebuild and re-emerge.
Moving the Ball Forward
Kristen Day, the executive director of Democrats for Life of America, said the pro-life movement will not be able to legislate directly on abortion without a pro-life majority in Congress.
The only legislative path forward for the pro-life movement currently in the House, she said, is to build bipartisan consensus behind federal legislation that would address “push factors” of abortion.
“That’s the only way to move forward in this Congress,” she said.
For example, Day said paid family leave — an issue Trump supported during his campaign and which had support in the Senate — could relieve pressure on low-income, working mothers.
Congress could also expand funding opportunities for pro-life pregnancy centers and health clinics that try to provide life-affirming care and material support for abortion-vulnerable women.
Guttmacher Institute’s research data for the U.S. abortion industry shows abortion heavily correlates with low family incomes: Six out of 10 women who sought abortions in 2014 already had a child — and 75% were within 200% of the federal poverty level, or $32,000 for a family of two.
One out of two women having an abortion made within 100% of the poverty level, making just $16,000 a year for a family of two, which is little more than a single mother working full time on the federal minimum wage.
Guttmacher found the top reasons cited by most women for abortions were existing responsibilities to others; inability to afford another child; and fears that they would no longer be able to work, go to school or care for dependent family members.
Carol Tobias, president of the National Right to Life Committee, said she believed that one day pro-life majorities could be the case in both parties. But right now, she explained, pro-lifers have to prioritize getting a solid majority of pro-life justices on the Supreme Court.
“Right now our goal is the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade,” she said. “And no Democrat running for Senate is going to support that position, or if they do, they are not going to win, because their party is not going to support them.”
John Carr, the director of the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown University, told the Register that he is concerned that the pro-life movement will achieve some tactical victories, but lose ground if it becomes identified as a partisan issue.
Election data showed voters across many demographics in the midterm election cycle trended back toward Democrats, with the GOP retaining white voters overall, but at weaker levels of support.
A New York Times analysis of exit polls showed middle-income voters ($50,000-$100,000) moved sharply into the Democratic camp for the first time since 2008 (when the economy collapsed into recession) and that young people (in the 18-29 age range) swung harder for Democrats than they did for Obama.
“We can win some battles,” Carr said, “but we can’t convince the country to protect unborn life if it is only Republicans and only conservatives that share that conviction.”
Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff writer.