Where have all the pro-life Democrats gone?
In 2009, 64 Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives very nearly torpedoed the legislation that would soon become the Affordable Care Act because they wanted more restrictions on abortion.
Today, it’s almost impossible to imagine that so many Democrats could have voted to limit abortion access. This year, just three House Democrats voted for a bill that would have banned abortion nationwide after 20 weeks, except in rare cases. And come November, such a vote may be even more inconceivable as Democrats lean further left on abortion: In 2018, Democrats running for federal office across the country are betting on platforms that unabashedly support abortion rights.
Not a single anti-abortion Democratic candidate is running competitively in the 91 districts the party hopes to flip from red to blue this year, according to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Similarly, a VICE News review of Democratic challengers in competitive Senate races in 2018 found that all support abortion rights or have refrained from taking a public stance on the issue.
“The Democratic Party has never been very welcoming to pro-life Democrats,” said former Michigan Rep. Bart Stupak, the Democrat who led the charge against the Affordable Care Act over abortion restrictions in 2009. “They’re even less warm now, and the relationship has gone south.”
This change has been years in the making. Although there’s no absolute criteria for what constitutes “pro-life” or “pro-choice,” Democrats willing to vote for restrictions on abortion have largely left Congress over the past decade. Three Democratic senators who oppose abortion remain in office — all are up for election this year, though their primary opponents have little chance of unseating them. And just 12 of the 64 Democratic representatives who voted with Stupak on the ACA remain in office. Stupak himself left Congress in 2010.
The election of Donald Trump, which also saw the Democrats fail to retake either the Senate or the House of Representatives, appears to have made support for abortion rights non-negotiable among liberals as the midterm elections near. Polls suggest Democrats’ position may put them in line with the majority of their base, if not all Americans — but it may also lead the party to cede states and districts in November that it might have otherwise won.
A long time coming
Support for abortion rights wasn’t always so tied to one political party. Around the time of Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion, many Republicans pushed to liberalize abortion laws.
“Just after [ Roe v. Wade], neither party was firmly on one side or the other on abortion,” explained Marjorie Spruill, a history professor at the University of South Carolina and the author of “Divided We Stand: The Battle Over Women’s Rights and Family Values That Polarized America.” As recently as 1995, Republicans remained split on the issue. Nearly half thought abortion should be legal in all or most circumstances, according to polling conducted by the Pew Research Center that year.
That’s no longer true today. According to Pew, 65 percent of Republicans now believe abortion should be illegal in all or most cases.
Just as opposition to abortion among Republicans has grown over time, support among Democrats has increased. Two decades ago, 64 percent of Democrats thought that abortion should be legal in all or most circumstances; as of 2017, 75 percent believed that, Pew found. And among the surging number of Democrats who identify as ideologically liberal, support for abortion rights is growing even more rapidly. Between 2015 and 2017, belief that abortion should be legal in all or most cases jumped to 88 percent from 78 percent.
That spike coincided with the presidential battle between Trump and Hillary Clinton. Although Trump’s rhetoric on abortion was often inconsistent, it was certainly visceral. During the third presidential debate, a few weeks before the election, Trump claimed Clinton wanted to let people “rip the baby out of the womb of the mother just prior to the birth of the baby.”
Clinton ran on what’s widely considered to be the most pro–abortion rights presidential platform in history, so Trump’s victory left the Democratic Party reeling, unsure of whether to stick to the center or double down on progressive policies. At first, even the most liberal leaders seemed to shy away from spotlighting abortion rights: In April, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders argued, “You just can't exclude people who disagree with us on one issue.” Then, in July, DCCC Chair Rep. Ben Ray Luján of New Mexico refused to make abortion a litmus test for candidates, telling the Hill, “We have to be a big family in order to win the House back.”
But a rising tide of liberal grassroots activism, fueled by outrage over Clinton’s loss and Trump’s conduct toward women, has demanded all Democrats support abortion rights. Anti-abortion groups were not allowed to participate in the Women’s March on Washington in 2017 or its 2018 iteration, when hundreds of thousands of women spilled out into the streets to protest Trump.
“We are clearly a pro-choice movement,” Linda Sarsour, assistant treasurer of the Women’s March, told VICE News at the Women’s Convention in October. “We have a chance as progressives to really move the needle toward progressive policies, progressive candidates, a progressive agenda, at a time where there’s two extremes now. Let us be the progressives.”
Since Clinton lost, more than 20,000 women have contacted Emily’s List, which helps Democratic women who support abortion rights get elected, about running for office. The group’s previous record was 920 women, during the 2016 election cycle.
“For a lot of women, they look at abortion rights and respect for women in general as something that’s very much under threat with this president and the Republican Party. So it’s very much top-of-mind for folks,” said Margie Omero, a Democratic pollster who works for the progressive firm GBA Strategies. “All of these issues are about women’s economic and personal autonomy and the kind of respect that women deserve.”
What Democrats are risking
Historically, abortion is rarely people’s biggest worry — and that could be a problem for Democrats this year.
“The big, mushy middle of the U.S. has really conflicted or kind of ambiguous views about abortion,” said Joshua Wilson, a University of Denver professor who studies abortion policy. “There’s a good chunk of the population that’s not a big fan of abortion but doesn’t want to cut off access to abortion.”
And as long as access isn’t explicitly threatened, most people who support abortion rights aren’t likely to be motivated to vote solely on the issue. Even as states have chipped away at abortion access over the past several years — through strict requirements on clinics, providers, and women seeking abortions — the issue rarely feels urgent.
While about 7 in 10 Americans oppose overturning Roe v. Wade, just 21 percent of Americans told Gallup in 2015 that they wouldn’t vote for a candidate who held an opposite view on abortion. “We have a lot of the ingredients in place to make it a much more prominent issue for voters,” Wilson said, “but I don’t feel like it’s coalesced, exactly.”
Both Wilson and Katie Packer Beeson, who founded the women-focused Burning Glass Consulting firm and served as deputy campaign manager for Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign, say abortion is an issue that Republican candidates could use to sway voters who might consider supporting a Democrat.
“In those states [that], last year, were not battleground districts but have become battleground districts, this could potentially make the difference between winning and losing for them,” Packer Beeson said. She added, “For people that are strongly pro-life — which is a majority of Republicans — it’s a life-and-death issue. It’s not a rights issue.”
She pointed to the example of Alabama’s special election in November, where right-wing GOP candidate Roy Moore nearly beat his Democratic opponent, Doug Jones, despite being accused of child molestation. Moore ran ad after ad highlighting Jones’ support for abortion rights, in an attempt to appeal to the 58 percent of Alabama adults who believe abortion should be “illegal in all or most cases.”
“People would say to me, ‘I have real concerns about this guy, but at least he’s pro-life. This other guy’s position is that he’s pro–killing babies,’” Packer Beeson explained. “So it gives people huge pause — who might otherwise be open to a Democratic candidate, particularly, I think, in red states.”
Anti-abortion Democrats who currently hold office say candidates should reflect their constituents’ views, not try to pass a party-wide ideological purity test.
“I travel my district widely and I think I represent my district,” said Texas Rep. Henry Cuellar, one of the three House Democrats who voted for a 2017 bill that would ban abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy. Cuellar is not facing a competitive primary challenger. “I’m not going to tell somebody who represents San Francisco, ‘Hey, there’s something wrong with you because you’re not pro-life.’”
But there’s evidence to suggest that Democrats’ leftward move on abortion isn’t a gamble at all. Instead, it could lead politicians to finally fall in line with most of their constituents’ overwhelming support for abortion. A survey of more than 1,000 politicians running for state legislatures in 2014 by Stanford and Northwestern University researchers found that both Republican and Democratic lawmakers believed their constituents to be far more conservative than they actually were. On average, politicians underestimated support for abortion by about 10 percentage points.
“The Republicans have these strongly false beliefs that the public really supports parts of their agenda, whereas the Democrats are a lot more cautious,” said Chris Skovron, one of the researchers behind the survey. In December, Skovron did an analysis for the website The Outline of the 91 districts targeted by the DCCC in 2018 — which are considered moderate but winnable. “The average district in that group is pretty darn liberal on a lot of issues,” he said. “There’s just no evidence that the Democrats need to run to the center.”
Unprecedented primary challengers
Abortion rights groups are now going to unheard-of lengths to back Democrats who support abortion rights in conservative districts and states. And that includes going after incumbents.
NARAL Pro-Choice America, one of the nation’s largest abortion rights advocacy groups, traditionally avoids making primary endorsements. Last year, however, the organization announced it would support now-Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam in his primary against former U.S. Rep. Tom Perriello.
Now, NARAL is championing Marie Newman’s challenge to Illinois Democrat Rep. Dan Lipinski, a seven-term incumbent, in a race that’s widely seen as a referendum on the future of the Democratic Party.
Lipinski was one of six Democrats in the House of Representatives in 2013 to vote in favor of a bill to ban abortion after 20 weeks; in 2015, he was one of four Democrats to vote for the ban; in 2017, he was one of three. (Despite being reintroduced in the House each year, the ban has never passed the Senate, where it would require 60 votes.) Lipinski has also voted repeatedly to defund Planned Parenthood and is one of just two Democrats who still belong to the Congressional Pro-Life Caucus, in addition to voting against the Affordable Care Act in 2010 and voting to uphold the Defense of Marriage Act in 2011. He did not return several requests for comment.
Newman, the former head of a coalition of anti-bullying nonprofits, has seized on his record. On her campaign website, she pointedly remarks that she takes “true democratic stances.”
“The fact that Roe v. Wade is in question is ridiculous,” Newman, who’s also been endorsed by New York Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s political action committee, said in an interview. “I don’t think I even have an adjective for it.”
NARAL States Communications Director James Owens called the group’s endorsement “an evolution in NARAL’s political plan,” necessitated by the Trump administration’s “unprecedented level of attack on women’s reproductive rights.”
“She’s really kind of walked the walk on so many core progressive values that it became kind of a no-brainer,” Owens said. “In particular, Lipinski, you see that he is pretty out of step with where the party is, with where Democratic voters are.”
Planned Parenthood and Emily’s List are so far sitting out the race for Illinois’ third district; they also traditionally stay away from making endorsements in primaries involving Democratic incumbents. And there’s no sign that these groups will challenge the three sitting senators who oppose abortion and are all up for re-election this year: Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Joe Donnelly of Indiana, and Bob Casey of Pennsylvania. (None returned requests for comment for this story.)
But other Democrats running for office echo NARAL. In the era of Trump, they say, the time of giving an inch on abortion rights is over.
“We live in a day and age where women’s rights are being challenged more than they ever have been in my lifetime,” said Katie Hill, a Democrat running in California’s 25th District, which includes part of Los Angeles County and is poised to become one of the biggest fights in 2018. “Of course it’s possible to run being pro-life, but I don’t think we as a party should be doing that.”
Diamond Naga Siu contributed reporting.