The Catholic Thing
The Pro-Life Democrats – Fading, Fading, Gone Print E-mail
By Hadley Arkes   
Monday, 15 March 2010

H.L. Mencken offered a caricature of the man who never quite understands: If we say we are appalled by demagoguery, he thinks we are against democracy; and if we are reluctant to buy the “cancer salve,” it must be because we want Uncle Julius to die. At different moments, in these columns, I’ve mentioned the fact that the Democrats, in our time, have made the defenses of abortion rights and sexual freedom central, defining principles of the party. All interests are given their proportion, their place, as they arrange themselves in relation to the recognition of how central and preeminent those commitments have become.

For the modern liberal, the right to abortion has displaced the freedom of religion or speech as the “first freedoms,” the anchoring ground of personal liberty. Like it or not, it just so happens that the Republican Party, in our day, has become in fact the pro-life party. Granted, the Republican Party has been filled with the country-club types, the Harry Blackmuns and Potter Stewarts who helped to give us Roe v. Wade in the first place. And yet, their ranks have diminished, and one by one they have been disappearing from the Congress. But when I’ve mentioned these points in the course of commentaries, I’ve elicited scathing remarks from some readers, stating anew their ancient aversion to Republicans, and accusing me of being, in my first concern, a mouthpiece for the GOP.

I came into this world in an apartment in wartime Chicago, with a strongly Democratic family and a picture of Franklin Roosevelt in the kitchen. It took me many years to leave the Democrats. And I left precisely because of the transformation of the party on abortion, along with other shifts along the scale to moral relativism. For pro-lifers to react with anger when I simply note the plain facts before us is to show a kind of blinded rage, a disconnection from the world as it is. And that is no formula for acting sensibly, toward rightful ends, in the days ahead.

When we had our first vote in the House of Representatives on the Born-Alive Infants’ Protection Act (the move to protect the child who “survived” the abortion) only two Republicans voted against the bill: Ben Gilman (NY) and Nancy Johnson (CT). They are both now gone. When Bart Stupak (D-MI) brought forth his amendment to bar the funding of abortion in Obamacare, the amendment carried the day because Stupak could deliver sixty-four Democratic votes. That was 64 out of 258, about a quarter of the Democrats. The Republican vote was 176-0. The pro-life cause carried only because of the Republicans.

The pro-life Democrats have a distinct function in their party, as recognized explicitly by Rahm Emanuel: They offer pro-life voters the chance to stay in the Democrat party as a minority, and help to install in power, in Congress and the White House, a party that rejects at the root the pro-life position. The back and forth over medical care has revealed the strongest impulses of the Democratic leadership: to remove from the law every lingering barrier to abortion on demand, and to make abortion even more widespread and accepted through public funding.

There has been a curious neglect in noticing the way political parties teach something to the public and their voters by the way they reconcile the groups and interests that come together in the party. The lesson taught to the pro-life Democratic voters is this: “You must come to understand that the pro-life issue will always be subordinated to something else, for this issue cannot claim centrality for the party. The party will never support the overturning of Roe v. Wade or any serious restrictions on abortion. At most we can promise to avoid the gratuitous promotion of abortion through public funding.” Any pro-life Democrat in Congress has had to absorb this understanding. The question is whether they reflect here the understanding of their voters – or whether they will succeed in having that understanding accepted and absorbed by the people who vote for them.

Hence, we might ask, what is the surprise now as the pro-life Democrats in the House are melting away? They have been asked to accept the Senate bill, rejecting the Stupak Amendment. They are being asked to accept a bill that will provide many levers to administrators in spreading abortion to health insurance, private and public. Of the sixty-four Democrats who voted for the Stupak Amendment, more than fifty have now agreed to accept that state of affairs. Stupak has insisted that a group of ten to twelve remain with him. It appears now that he has only four or five, and even they, he admitted in an interview last Friday, are being peeled away.

Stupak may be the last one standing. What is even sadder at this moment – and illuminating – is that Stupak himself seems bewildered to the point of what we used to call punch-drunk. He remarked, out of exhaustion, to an interviewer, “I won’t leave the party. I’m more comfortable here. . .but this bill will make being a pro-life Democrat much more difficult.” Difficult? Hardly difficult, for there is for the pro-life Democrats no standing, no role, no purpose. Nothing, really, for them to do. If Stupak can still find “comfort” in that life without purpose or rationale, that must be finding a peace sublime.

Hadley Arkes is the Ney Professor of Jurisprudence at Amherst College.

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Comments (9)Add Comment
Taste and See.
written by Willie, March 16, 2010
To the point and so true! It is well recognized, like it or not, that the Democratic party is a pro abortion party. Abortion rights are integral to its existence. Those who stay with that party and espouse a pro life philosophy must feel very lonely, and at most tolerated. I think they dupe themselves into trying to find a reason for their existence in some " seamless garment " type of reasoning. If one can tell a tree by its fruit, then you can taste and see that the fruit is rotten!
written by Gary Seaton, March 16, 2010
Prof. Arkes: Another enlightening, discomforting, column. Let's (literally) pray that Rep. Stupak and enough of his pro-life Dem colleagues stand strong for life. This is a defining moment in America's history. Let's not give up the good fight, whether in the public square or in the conversion of our own hearts.
If I were American...
written by Thibaud, March 16, 2010
If I were American, I would see no other way, however unpleasant, than to vote for the GOP until a Republican President names a 5th anti-Roe v. Wade Supreme Court Justice. Then, I would pray that the Democratic Party stop putting abortion and sexual license at the top of its political platform.
GOP Not Pro-Life Either
written by blue8064, March 16, 2010
The Republican party is not pro-life either. The main reason for that is their support for a policy denying an increase in welfare payments to unmarried welfare mothers who have more children while on welfare (the family cap). Such a policy implicitly tells welfare mothers to abort their babies instead of allowing them to be born, and is therefore pro-abortion. On the other hand, working families have dependency exemptions and child tax credits to help them with raising children.
They hated Christ too
written by Jacob Ford, March 16, 2010
The reason that readers get so mad at you Professor Arkes, is because you're right; and not just right about something stupid and pointless, but right about the most important issue of our time.
Catholics who are living the hypocrisy of supporting just about any democrat/leftist/"liberal" are going to seethe in anger at someone like you who so clearly spells out the brokenness and irrationality of a Christian supporting the world's holocaust of the unborn.
Parsing Stupak
written by Joseph, March 16, 2010
Careful reading of the bill belies any notion that federal money would be used to fund abortion. Stupak's pro-life stance is admirable, but the issue has been oversimplified by casting this as a pro-life vs. pro-choice debate, a media construction that fails to grasp subtleties as pointed out by the Catholic Health Assn.
The Senate bill
written by Brad Miner, March 16, 2010
Cardinal George yesterday: “Notwithstanding the denials and explanations of its supporters, and unlike the bill approved by the House of Representatives in November, the Senate bill deliberately excludes the language of the Hyde amendment. It expands federal funding and the role of the federal government in the provision of abortion procedures.”
50 years of neglect
written by William H. Phelan, March 16, 2010
Thank you, Dr. Arkes. It all began with the massive dissent against Humanae Vitae in 1968. Roe v. Wade would not have occurred in 1973 without this dissent. What was the response of Paul VI?-freshets of tears! He never wrote another encyclical, dying in 1978. You want to write about Pro-Life Democrats being 3 degrees north of useless? Write about the Church which has been focusing on Social Justice and ICEL translations ad nauseam for fifty years. It should padlock its doors!
Honouring the Church
written by Just Wondering, March 16, 2010
Pope John Paul II lamented our return to a barbarism he had hoped had been left behind forever in refering to abortion. How can this be equivocated? How are the leaders who support aborton any less barbaric than the most tyrannical individuals in human history?

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