Freshman pro-life Democrats yield mixed results

When seven new Democrats frequently described as pro-life were elected to Congress a year ago, their arrival on the national scene got mixed reviews in pro-life circles. Some pro-lifers saw little or no real significance in the development, while others hailed it as a breakthrough that signaled a shift by the Democratic Party away from its official policy of supporting legalized abortion.

"This is a tremendous victory for pro-life Democrats and a sign that the Democratic Party can no longer be considered the party of abortion," said Kristen Day, executive director of Democrats for Life.

Reflecting the skeptical view, however, a pro-life newsletter called "Life Advocacy Briefing" sniffed that a "smattering" of newly elected pro-life Democrats in Congress would not matter much.

"The one sort-of silver lining we find ... is the discovery by the Democratic Party that fielding pro-life candidates against pro-life Republican incumbents in conservative districts might actually be an acceptable idea," the publication remarked.

Mixed picture

Looking at the status of the abortion issue on Capitol Hill as it has taken shape since then, it is abundantly clear that as a group the Democrats who won control of both houses of Congress last year remain as firmly committed as ever to the pro-choice position on abortion.

Nevertheless, congressional Democrats have taken only some limited steps to press that position so far. The reasons for the go-slow approach appear to include preoccupation with Iraq, a pledge by President George W. Bush to veto new pro-abortion enactments and a shortfall of votes to override those vetoes, and reluctance to push controversial positions on sensitive social issues with national elections coming up in 2008.

As for the seven new purportedly pro-life Democrats -- one senator and six representatives -- who were elected last year, 10 months into the 110th Congress their voting records on abortion present a mixed picture.

Up to now, Congress has dealt with two major measures that focused clearly and unequivocally on abortion or some issue directly related to it. One of these was a proposed expansion of federal funding of embryonic stem-cell research that involves abortion. The other was legislation to strike down the so-called Mexico City Policy that forbids giving federal money to groups involved in abortion overseas.

In the two main roll call votes on these proposals, the senator -- Robert Casey of Pennsylvania -- voted pro-life in one instance and pro-abortion in the other. Four of the representatives voted pro-life across the board, one split his votes and one voted pro-abortion on both issues.

In both cases, President Bush kept his promise and vetoed the legislation.

Stem-cell vote

Besides Sen. Casey, the new Democratic members of Congress billed as pro-life during the election campaign are Reps. Heath Shuler (North Carolina), a former NFL quarterback, Joe Donnelly (Indiana), Brad Ellsworth (Indiana), Charlie Wilson (Ohio), Chris Carney (Pennsylvania) and Jason Altmire (Pennsylvania). Several of them defeated pro-life Republicans to win election.

That includes Casey, who unseated former Sen. Rick Santorum, arguably the most outspoken pro-life member of the Senate and chief Senate sponsor of the federal ban on partial-birth abortion, upheld earlier this year by the Supreme Court. Casey's father, the late Robert Casey Sr., was a staunch pro-life Democratic governor of Pennsylvania whose memory is revered by abortion opponents.

The specifics of the seven members' votes on abortion-related legislation in the 110th Congress up to this time are these.

The Senate in April voted 63-34 to expand federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research involving new stem-cell lines beyond those currently authorized under a policy established by President Bush in 2001. Bush limited funding to stem-cell lines already existing at that time.

Voting against the expansion -- a pro-life vote, in other words -- was Casey.

The House took up the stem-cell issue in June and followed the Senate's lead, voting for expanded funding 247-176. Voting no -- pro-life, that is -- were Donnelly, Ellsworth, Shuler and Wilson. Voting yes were Altmire and Carney.

Mexico City policy

The House addressed the Mexico City policy barring government funding of groups performing or promoting foreign abortions in July. The policy originated with Ronald Reagan and was reinstituted by Bush in 2001. This time the result was a 223-201 defeat for the policy.

Voting on the pro-life side of the issue were Altmire, Donnelly, Ellsworth, Shuler and Wilson. Carney again voted pro-abortion.

The Senate took its turn on the Mexico City policy in September and, as the House had done, voted 53-41 to overturn the ban on funding for groups involved in abortion. Casey cast his vote on the pro-abortion side.

Oddly enough, Casey also voted at first for a separate proposal to continue the existing pro-life policy. A short time later, however, the Pennsylvania Democrat returned to the Senate floor to say he had made a mistake and wanted to switch his vote to the pro-abortion side.

In sum, the addition of these seven Democrats to Congress has had ambiguous results for the pro-life cause and has failed to mark a new day in their party's approach to abortion. There is no compelling reason at the moment to think the congressional elections of November 2008 will change that much.

Russell Shaw is a contributing editor to Our Sunday Visitor.