Pennsylvania: A Tale of 2 Caseys and the Death of a Pro-Life Catholic State

COMMENTARY: With the election of Josh Shapiro as governor and John Fetterman as Robert Casey’s partner in the U.S. Senate, the position of Pennsylvania as a pro-life state is a thing of the past.

US Senator Bob Casey Jr., D, Pa., greets senate candidate Lt Governor John Fetterman before a speech by President Joe Biden at the United Steelworkers of America Local Union 2227 on September 5, 2022 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
US Senator Bob Casey Jr., D, Pa., greets senate candidate Lt Governor John Fetterman before a speech by President Joe Biden at the United Steelworkers of America Local Union 2227 on September 5, 2022 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (photo: Jeff Swensen / AFP/Getty)

Once upon a time here in Pennsylvania, not long ago, we boasted great pro-life leaders from both political parties.

To cite a key example from each party, among Republicans, we had Sen. Rick Santorum, perhaps the leading pro-life voice in the U.S. Senate. Among Democrats, we had Gov. Robert Casey Sr., the namesake of the landmark Planned Parenthood v. Casey decision, which Casey regrettably lost, though that decision was at long last reversed in June 2022, with the Dobbs ruling. Among our state’s governor and two U.S. senators, we typically could rely on at least two solid pro-lifers, sometimes from both parties.

A stark switch came in 2014, when Pennsylvanians elected as governor Democrat Tom Wolf. Our state suddenly had the nation’s first and only governor to have served as an escort at Planned Parenthood abortion facilities. The idea that Pennsylvanians would elect someone as culturally radical as Wolf to the governor’s mansion was once unthinkable — and clearly a wake-up call for the culture. The late Gov. Casey would have been mortified, especially as Wolf proceeded to govern as an abortion extremist.

Pennsylvanian Democrats, many of them Catholics, were undeterred by Wolf’s abortion positions. They reelected Wolf in 2018 in a landslide, defeating his Republican challenger by 17%. Wolf’s abortion extremism was no problem whatsoever for Pennsylvania Democratic voters.

All of this was apparently a sign of things to come, as the November 2022 midterm elections made clear.

The Nov. 8 election was a further stark repudiation of Pennsylvania’s onetime pro-life leadership. Pennsylvania now has radical pro-choice Democrats in the governor’s office with Josh Shapiro, in the U.S. Senate with John Fetterman, a Bernie Sanders Democrat who is an extremist on all the cultural-moral issues from abortion to the full “LGBTQ” agenda (he literally flies an “LGBTQ” flag from the balcony of his lieutenant governor’s office), and, sadly, with incumbent U.S. Sen. Robert Casey Jr.

Yes, that’s Casey Jr. This marked shift seems to have started with him, prior to Gov. Wolf.

Casey the Younger in 2006 crushed incumbent Sen. Santorum in a double-digit landslide, 59% to 41%, so overwhelming that it left Santorum supporters speechless. It was the largest-ever margin of victory for a Pennsylvania Democrat running for the U.S. Senate and the biggest margin against any incumbent in America in decades.

How could Santorum lose that badly? The answer was that Casey benefited enormously from name recognition — that is, his father’s name. He ran as a pro-life Catholic Democrat, just like his father. In fact, pro-life Santorum supporters took a measure of comfort in the fact that at least their guy lost to a pro-life Democrat, one of the very few pro-life Democrats in the U.S. Senate. That offered a degree of solace.

Maybe Casey, like his father, would fight to try to pull his party back to a pro-life platform?

Unfortunately, he has done just the opposite.

Casey has morphed with his party on the abortion issue. And at every stop, his Democratic base in Pennsylvania has rewarded him. He was reelected in both 2012 and 2018. He is the first Democrat ever in Pennsylvania to win a third consecutive term to the U.S. Senate.

The ultimate symbol of Casey’s pro-life reversal came in June with Dobbs, when he shockingly rejected the very Supreme Court decision that finally upheld and affirmed his father in his father’s epic case against Planned Parenthood.

“Today’s decision upends almost a half-century of legal precedent and rips away a constitutional right that generations of women have known their entire lives,” stated Casey in his official reaction to the Dobbs decision. “This dangerous ruling won’t end abortions in this country, but it will put women’s lives at risk. And make no mistake — this is not the end goal; it’s just the beginning. Republicans in Congress want to pass federal legislation to completely ban abortion. Our daughters and granddaughters should not grow up with fewer rights than their mothers.”

To say that this was a stunning betrayal of his father’s legacy is an understatement. Here’s what his father said in December 1987:

“I believe abortion to be the ultimate violence. I believe strongly that Roe v. Wade was incorrectly decided as a matter of law and represents a national public policy both divisive and destructive. It has unleashed a tidal wave that has swept away the lives of millions of defenseless, innocent unborn children. In according to the woman’s right of privacy in the abortion decision both exclusivity and finality, the Supreme Court has not only disregarded the right of the unborn to life itself, but has deprived parents, spouses and the state of the right to participate in a decision in which they all have a vital interest. This interest ought to be protected, rather than denied by the law.”

In March 1993, speaking at the historic old courthouse in St. Louis where the original Dred Scott trial took place, Gov. Casey had stated: “As everyone knows, the Court can be — and has been — seriously wrong. The Court erred in the case of Dred Scott. And I believe that the Court erred in the case of Roe v. Wade.”

He compared abortion not only to slavery, but murder: “It’s a unique kind of killing … as an objective fact, this is what abortion is.” Casey even compared abortion to the Holocaust.

That was the senior Casey. It is not the junior Casey.

Robert Casey Jr.’s drift on the abortion issue — and clear break from his father’s signature issue — can be viewed as the start of what is now a complete repudiation of a pro-life platform by Pennsylvania Democratic leaders. With the election of Shapiro as governor and Fetterman as Casey’s partner in the U.S. Senate, the position of Pennsylvania as a pro-life state, where Democrats and Republicans could work together to oppose abortion, is completely gone.

Governor Bob Casey Sr. portrait public domain
Portrait of Governor Bob Casey Sr. (Photo: Official Portrait)

Sadly, what has made this possible is the larger drift of Democratic Party voters in Pennsylvania away from the pro-life position. This could not have happened without their votes.

For years, pro-life Democrats in Pennsylvania, many of them Catholics, merely voted for whichever candidates had a “D” next to their name on the ballot. Many of these Catholic Democrat voters put up yard signs for whoever the party nominated, regardless of where the candidate stood on the abortion issue. All of the pro-life education done in their parishes and communities was not enough to override their loyalty to their political party. It was party first.

As they green-lighted whichever political candidate had a “D,” they sent a signal to the Democratic Party statewide that they would elect candidates irrespective of how extreme they might be on the abortion question. Fetterman’s election Nov. 8 is a striking culmination.

In all, it means that this once remarkable pro-life state, standing apart from New York and New Jersey and the Northeast states, and more akin to Ohio and Midwest states, will be represented by abortion advocates Shapiro, Fetterman and Casey, who is particularly disappointing, given his repudiation of his father’s pro-life legacy.

It is a sad loss for pro-lifers in Pennsylvania and for the pro-life movement nationwide.