The Pro-Life Democrats – Fading, Fading, Gone

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 Emeritus at Amherst College and the Founder/Director of the James Wilson Institute on Natural Rights & the American Founding. He is the author of Constitutional Illusions & Anchoring Truths: The Touchstone of the Natural Law. Volume II of his audio lectures from The Modern Scholar, First Principles and Natural Law is available for download. His new book is Mere Natural Law: Originalism and the Anchoring Truths of the Constitution.