ANALYSIS: Pro-life Democrats are gone from Congress, now what?

shutterstock 1082050127 House of Representatives. | mark reinstein/Shutterstock

In a viral video in September, Fr. James Altman of La Crosse, Wisconsin claimed that "You can not be Catholic and be a Democrat. Period." He cited the party platform's support of abortion to make his argument.

That may - or may not - have come as news to eight-term Illinois congressman Dan Lipinski, a Catholic Democrat who has consistently bucked his party's leadership on life issues.

For years, Lipinski was known as the most reliably pro-life Democrat in the House, but he will be leaving Congress in January. He lost his March primary to a pro-abortion challenger –a fate which has become all too common for pro-life Democrats who face attacks from the left on abortion, and from the right by Republicans.

When the new Congress convenes, the landscape will be unrecognizable from a decade ago, when 64 Democrats voted to restrict abortion funding in health care reform legislation. Those pro-life protections were evenutally stripped from the Senate bill that became the Affordable Care Act.

The consolidation of pro-life votes within one political party raises questions about the pro-life movement's long-term political interests. 

If only one party welcomes pro-lifers, it also knows they have nowhere else to go--and can act accordingly. "It makes it easier for Republicans to take pro-life voters for granted," Lipinski told CNA. 

There is no denying that pro-lifers have won significant policy victories in the last four years, with Republican control of the White House and Senate. Yet President Trump is perhaps the most polarizing president in decades and, fairly or not, he became the de facto face of the political pro-life movement, presenting a serious problem for pro-life candidates across the ailse.

Lipinski found this out the hard way, when he was fighting for his political life. He told EWTN Pro-Life Weekly in October that the president's pro-life shadow made it harder, not easier, for him to win re-election.

"I've been labeled anti-woman because I am pro-life. And it's easier when they can point to Donald Trump, and some of the things that Donald Trump has said, things he has been accused of. And that makes it more difficult," Lipinski said.

And demographically, the movement faces challenges to building a diverse coalition critical to long-term success.

Black pro-life leaders have warned about this in recent months, saying that many voters who harbor pro-life sympathies are turned off by politicians who toe the GOP line on other issues.

Louisiana state Sen. Katrina Jackson (D) has said that Black voters in her district take notice when "pro-life" GOP politicians oppose Medicaid expansion, or support the death penalty.

Benjamin Watson, a former NFL tight end and an outspoken-pro-lifer, has said that many African-Americans are religious and support life issues. However, they connect the "pro-life" label with Republican politics-and "a host of other issues that seem to be anti-black."

Of course, running as a pro-life Democrat is more easily said than done now. 

Pro-abortion groups have teamed up with progressive groups to target pro-life Democrats such as Lipinski with a deluge of negative attack ads. As a vulnerable incumbent, Lipinski lacked the support of House party leadership while his opponent was boosted by young progressives such as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.).

Yet the ownership of the life issue by one party might also discourage many Catholic voters who are pro-life but who support economic or immigration policies at odds with the Republican platform.

The U.S. bishops have emphasized the "pre-eminence" of abortion as a social issue, teaching that without the right to be born, other fundamental human rights are rendered moot. They have done this while underlining the importance of other issues such as affordable health care, protecting the environment, and welcoming immigrants and refugees.

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Without more pro-life candidates in both parties, Catholics have been left with a conundrum-vote for life at the expense of other important issues, decide to ditch the life issue in favor of the others, or refuse to vote for a major party candidate.

However, perhaps the most grave development of a one-party pro-life movement is the ever-expanding influence of the pro-abortion cause on Democrats.

No taxpayer funding of abortion-a policy most commonly known as the Hyde Amendment-enjoyed bipartisan support for decades. Now, both Joe Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) have said they plan to do away with it. Biden's health care proposal would also cover abortions in publicly-funded plans.

Legislation recognizing the personhood of any baby born alive-including infants who survive abortions-became law in 2002 with support from both parties. Now, multiple 2020 presidential candidates said they wouldn't prevent abortions from being performed even until the point of birth.

Several Democratic presidential candidates said there is no more room in the party for pro-lifers. At one presidential debate, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) challenged "the men of this country" to "stand with the women" in support of abortion.

Even if Trump ultimately accepts defeat in the 2020 presidential election, Republican pro-lifers have still made gains in the House and could continue to fend off abortion bills in the Senate for the next two years.

Yet, in the pro-life movement's constant game of defense against a pro-abortion absolutist Democratic Party leadership, it may want to consider whether "offense"-recruiting and running charismatic young pro-life Democrats to unseat vulnerable incumbents-isn't the best "defense."

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Pro-lifers should "do what AOC did, but do it in reverse," political strategist Jacob Lupfer told CNA in the spring after Lipinski's defeat, referring to Ocasio-Cortez, who, along with other young progressive women, scored upset wins in 2018 primaries to unseat incumbents.

Could the movement conceivably recruit young state-level pro-life candidates and challenge incumbents in friendly districts?

Pro-life Democratic voters do exist, with groups like Democrats for Life of America claiming millions of Americans are in support of their cause. 

But the challenge for the movement is finding them outside of socially conservative purple states like Louisiana. In parts of deep-blue Democratic strongholds like New York and Illinois, the pro-life vote is real, but hard to quantify. Identifying them, tapping in to their support and running successful candidates would need a real commitment of time and resources. But, if the movement is serious about shaping a long-term bipartisan consensus for life, it is a strategy worth considering.

With opinion polls showing many young Millennials are trending both pro-life and politically Democratic, it must be asked: where is the political ceiling on a pro-life movement with influence in only one party?

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