WASHINGTON — It’s not easy being a Democratic pro-lifer in Congress these days. Just ask Rep. Chris Smith, R.-N.J., the Republican co-chairman of the bipartisan Congressional Pro-Life Caucus.
Earlier this summer, Smith called pro-life House Democrats “heroic” for their willingness to buck their party’s pro-abortion leadership and vote against a House bill that authorized the provision of taxpayer money to groups that promote abortion overseas.
So what is it like serving as a pro-life Congressional Democrat in the current Democrat-controlled Congress?
“We’re back in the majority,” said Rep. Bart Stupak of Michigan, the Democratic co-chairman of the Congressional Pro-Life Caucus. “And now suddenly the fact that I’m a pro-life Democrat … it’s back to making life real difficult for me, let’s put it like that.”
Stupak said that he has been punished for his views. Language that he sought to have included in a couple of recent bills, on matters unrelated to pro-life issues, was stripped from the bills, without any explanation being given to him.
Said Stupak, “A couple of people have told me it’s because I have pro-life views, some of the pro-choice committee chairs and subcommittee chairs — no matter how reasonable the language was — will not help me.”
According to Stupak, he faced similar problems after being first elected to Congress in 1992, during the last period that the Democrats controlled the House. He says the party leadership at the time blocked him from serving on the Energy and Commerce committee, because it oversees the subcommittee that deals with abortion-related legislation.
It was only after the Republican sweep of Congress in 1994 that the Democratic leadership softened. “They said, ‘OK, maybe he’s not so bad. If he can withstand that, we’ll let him on the committee,’” Stupak said.
And while he’s facing some of the same suspicion from his party’s House leadership as in 1992, Stupak insists that it’s somewhat less severe this time, partly because of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. He said that Pelosi stood up for him on one of the bills that was stripped of his language, instructing that it be reinstated.
“Are we going to get the Speaker to change from pro-choice to pro-life? No,” Stupak said. “But it’s more comfortable in the Democratic Party than maybe it was in ’93 and ’94.”
Added Stupak, “Now at least they’re going to hear you out.”
Stupak said he coordinates “all the time” with Chris Smith about pending bills and other areas where joint action can advance the pro-life cause.
As well, the Democratic members of the Congressional Pro-life Caucus meet regularly among themselves and periodically caucus together with the much larger contingent of pro-life Republicans. Stupak said that there are around 30 pro-life Democrats who participate in the pro-life caucus.
The bipartisan caucus also sponsors educational seminars to raise awareness of pro-life issues among all Congressmen.
“One we did a few years ago that I thought was quite successful was Silent No More, with ladies who had abortions in their youth and the pain they feel,” he said. “We try to make members — both ‘life’ and ‘choice’ members — aware of some of the issues.”
Republican Smith is generous in his praise for the efforts of Stupak and other pro-life Democrats in the House.
“Stupak is a pro-life champion second to none,” Smith said in late June, after Stupak and more than 20 other Democratic Congressmen voted against a measure backed by the Democratic leadership to permit taxpayer support of groups that promote abortion overseas. Despite the efforts of the pro-life Democrats, the measure passed by a 223-201 vote.
Said Smith, “I just give him so much credit for his bravery.”
Pro-life Democrats comprise a significant minority among the 232 Democrats in the House. According to David O’Steen, executive director of National Right to Life, the number of reliably pro-life votes is in the upper teens, ranging as high as the upper 30s on some pro-life issues.
Along with Stupak, O’Steen named Collin Peterson and Jim Oberstar of Minnesota, Mike McIntyre of North Carolina, Lincoln Davis of Tennessee, and Alan Mollohan of West Virginia, and Gene Taylor of Mississippi as some of the leading Democratic pro-lifers in the House.
In contrast, according to National Right to Life’s tracking of Senate voting records, there is only one reliably pro-life Democratic Senator: Nebraska’s Ben Nelson. Jim Manley, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, said via email that Senate Democrats have “a diverse caucus, where different points of views are represented” on life issues. Manley added that Sen. Reid himself “is pro-life.”
However, O’Steen rejected Sen. Reid’s self-assessment. “Harry Reid describes himself as pro-life, but he works to thwart pro-life legislation and thwart judges that are opposed by the abortion lobby,” O’Steen said.
Several Democrats who said they are pro-life were elected last fall to the House, along with Bob Casey in the Senate. But none of the new Democrats in Congress displaced pro-abortion politicians; instead, they defeated pro-life incumbents like Rick Santorum, who lost to Casey in Pennsylvania.
O’Steen says that this indicates little change in the Democratic Party’s recent loyalty to the pro-abortion lobby.
“Is the national Democratic Party itself and the national party leadership more receptive to the pro-life view? I don’t see any evidence of that,” he said. “What they were more receptive to in the last election was allowing self-identified pro-life Democrats, in pro-life districts, to run against pro-life Republicans.”
Prominent Catholic Democratic pro-lifers like John DiIulio, former head of the White House faith-based office, and Raymond Flynn, U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See during the Clinton presidency, have suggested that the Democrats’ pronounced pro-abortion tilt is costing the party an opportunity to appeal to the nation’s large constituency of pro-life, pro-family and pro-poor voters.
Stupak, who is also Catholic, agrees that such voters are “our natural allies on social and economic issues.” But he admits that despite recent comments from some prominent Democrats about becoming more open towards religious and pro-life perspectives, his party’s pro-abortion position remains an impediment to attracting those voters’ support.
Said Stupak, “I think there’s an opportunity here, I think we’ve taken some steps towards recapturing that group, but we’re not all the way there yet.”
Tom McFeely is based in Victoria, British Columbia.