After Georgia Senate Setbacks, the Pro-Life Movement Prepares to Play Defense
Democrat Party will have control of both the White House and Congress.
WASHINGTON — In the wake of Democratic Party triumphs in the U.S. Senate runoff elections in Georgia, the pro-life movement is gearing up for a dramatically altered landscape, as the pro-abortion-rights party will now control Congress and the White House in 2021.
Pro-life groups are preparing to play defense on important pro-life protections after Democrats retook the Senate Jan. 6, when candidates Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff defeated Republican Sens. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue in the Georgia special election, handing the party a 50-50 parity, with Vice President-elect Kamala Harris having the tie-breaking vote.
The Republicans needed only to win one of the two seats to retain Senate control, but lost both races by razor-thin margins that strikingly reaffirmed the nation’s deep political polarization. Many observers, including some prominent Republicans, attributed the defeat to President Donald Trump’s refusal to accept defeat in the presidential election, and in particular the way he pressured Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger in a Jan. 4 conference call to support his claims that the election was stolen from him.
A Democratic-controlled White House and Congress last occurred during the Obama administration, from 2009 to 2011, but there were some key differences in the Democrats’ approach to abortion at the time. Outgoing pro-life Democrat Rep. Dan Lipinski told the Register in the summer that within his party there used to be “an understanding of a very deep question of what abortion is, and that there’s disagreement over it, but it was not something that should be taken lightly whatsoever by people on either side.” Lipinski, who lost his congressional seat in Illinois after he was defeated in the Democratic primary by a pro-abortion opponent, said that, now, “If you don’t support taxpayer funding of abortion, then you really are not truly pro-choice: That has become a litmus test.”
Responding to that Democratic Party shift, President-elect Joe Biden changed his stance and became supportive of taxpayer funding of abortion without any restrictions in 2019 on the campaign trail.
Tom McClusky, president of March for Life Action, told the Register that “the big difference” between the current situation and when the Democrats controlled both chambers and the White House in 2009 is that, then, “you had at least 40 self-described pro-life Democrats in the House, and you don’t have one right now.”
Pro-Life Provisions in Danger
One important pro-life safeguard even in a Democrat-controlled Senate will be the filibuster, which requires 60 members to end debate on a topic and move toward a vote, a much larger number than the party’s tenuous Senate control. The filibuster would limit the legislation Democrats could advance without the support of their Republican colleagues.
McClusky is not too encouraged overall by self-described pro-life Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., who has a mixed voting record on the abortion issue. He observed, “Watching Sen. Manchin vote over the years, he will never be the vote you need; he will not be the deciding vote.” And he didn’t see that “changing too much.” But since Manchin has already stated that he would not support eliminating the filibuster, McClusky said it is “hopefully safe.”
McClusky expressed concern over “a whole slew of different pro-life provisions that I think are on the chopping block,” notably including the Hyde Amendment, which bars taxpayer funding for abortion.
“[House Speaker] Nancy Pelosi has vowed that none of the appropriation bills going out of the House will include the Hyde Amendment,” he said. “it’s not just Hyde, of course, we’d be worried about. There’d be [the] Dornan [Amendment], which affects D.C. funding of abortions. There’s the Helms Amendment on international abortions.”
In fact, the Hyde Amendment could be the least endangered of these pro-life provisions, as the office of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 running mate, Catholic Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., indicated to the Register in December that he continues to support the amendment. Marist polling recently found that 60% of Americans oppose taxpayer funding of abortion, including 37% of those who identify as “pro-choice” and 35% of Democrats.
One piece of legislation that McClusky said pro-lifers need to be more vocal against is the Equality Act, which Biden vowed to pass in his first 100 days in office and contains “a section that would basically eliminate Hyde as well as go after states for passing pro-life laws.” He said the bill “might run into the legislative filibuster in the Senate,” but “does have some Republican support in [Sen.] Susan Collins.”
He said the pro-life movement would not be “taking a position on” the anti-discrimination portions of the bill, but on the fact “that it basically codifies Roe v. Wade and would outlaw the Hyde Amendment in a sense.”
Katie Glenn, government affairs counsel at Americans United for Life, told the Register that, “at the federal level, we’re going to have to really think in a bipartisan way. We may be pretty gridlocked on abortion, but there are lots of places where we can come together to protect women’s health and safety, to protect the elderly and disabled.”
She said that the tenuous control that Democrats hold in the House will hopefully be “a good safeguard” against potential extreme legislation, noting “that there’s going to be an element of not wanting to pass every single thing by four votes.” She added that with more sweeping or more controversial legislation, “there’s just not the mandate there, even if there is a technical majority.”
Glenn pointed out that “in previous divided Congresses, going all the way back to the 1970s, there have been appropriations riders in place that prevent taxpayer money from being spent paying for elective abortions.” She added that, as a senator, Biden “voted in favor of these protections every single year; there’s even one named for him: the Biden Amendment. There’s been sort of this sea change in the last couple of years, where you’ve been hearing more and more national-level Democrats oppose the Hyde Amendment.”
“Are we going to get Joe Biden who voted for Hyde protections to protect American taxpayers from paying with their tax money for abortions or are we going to get Joe Biden from the campaign trail who said that he changed his mind on Hyde?” Glenn wondered.
Both Glenn and McClusky were encouraged by Biden nominating Judge Merrick Garland to the post of attorney general, pointing out that he is viewed as a moderate on many issues. He may not be sympathetic, for example, to a proposal Vice President-elect Harris made as a candidate that “states that have a history of passing legislation designed to prevent or limit women’s access to reproductive health care will be required to come before my Department of Justice. Until we determine their laws are constitutional, they will not take effect.”
Kristan Hawkins, president of Students for Life of America, said that, in the longer term, pro-lifers “are going to have to fight efforts to ‘Codify Roe,’ a code word for taking the extreme realities of Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton and making them a federal law.” Codifying Roe v. Wade was another promise Biden made on the campaign trail.
Hawkins anticipated that “executive orders will be signed immediately undoing the Mexico City Policy, which limits taxpayer funding for abortion around the world, as well as going after President Trump’s Title X ‘Protect Life’ rule that stopped abortion vendors from selling abortions to women seeking taxpayer-funded family-planning services.”
“There is the huge reality that personnel is policy,” she added. “I have no doubt that the Biden-Harris administration will attempt to pack our courts, federal agencies and all levels of government with pro-abortion extremists who will push the limits of our law and society. You can see this already in their choice of California Attorney General Xavier Becerra for head of Health and Human Services.”
During his time as California attorney general, Becerra supported a 2015 law that required pro-life pregnancy centers in the state to “disseminate to clients” a message promoting public programs with “free or low-cost access” to abortion and contraceptive services. The law resulted in a lawsuit and ultimately a 5-4 Supreme Court decision in 2018 that determined it violated the First Amendment.