Last night 219 members of in the House of Representatives proved what many of us have suspected for decades: Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton are the twin pillars of the Democratic Party. The refusal to prohibit federal funding of abortions in the health care bill shows that the Democratic leadership is either remarkably dedicated to the principle that woman should have the right to use federal funds to kill their unborn children or they are the dumbest politicians in history. However, if they truly support abortion on demand they should stand by that conviction no matter how many elections it will cost them. And as history has shown, it has cost them plenty—and will cost them many more.
This wasn't always the case. The GOP was once the party open to those who supported abortion rights while the Democrats were generally populated with pro-lifers. During the primary race for the 1988 Presidential election, five of the Democratic contenders—Jesse Jackson, Joe Biden, Paul Simon, Dick Gephardt, and Al Gore—had previously opposed abortion. So did Bob Kerry. And Dick Durbin. And Bill Clinton. Even Ted Kennedy had claimed that the “legalization of abortion on demand is not in accordance with the value which our civilization places on human life.”
From 1976 to 1984 the Democratic Party platform also included language that hedged on abortion: "We fully recognize the religious and ethical concerns which many Americans have about abortion." That language disappeared in 1988, along with the pro-life convictions of the party leadership. By 1992 the Democrats had so thoroughly embraced abortion that Pennsylvania Governor Robert P. Casey was not allowed to speak at the convention because he didn't support the platform's abortion plank. The party's leaders feared that letting Casey speak would draw attention to the fact that pro-lifers weren't welcome at a time when 61 percent of pro-life Democrats were unaware that their party disagreed with them.
When Democratic voters realized what was happening, a seismic shift occurred. After having controlled Congress for forty years, the Democratic Party lost its dominance over the legislature. Since 1995, when Democrats lost both the House and Senate for a period of twelve years, the party has become even more entrenched in its support of abortion—and has removed all possibility of taking the high ground away from the GOP. The Democrats continue to support unfettered access to abortion even as it becomes an overwhelming political liability.
The Democrats cheered when the Supreme Court legalized with Roe v. Wade and secured abortion on demand with Doe v. Bolton. But the effect on their party has been almost completely negative. By taking the issue away from the states and putting it in the hands of the federal government, the Supreme Court ensured that a legislator's views on the issues would become a consideration in every Congressional election. For the past two decade, the issue has been one of the most decisive in determining voting pattern and cost them the support of previously loyal constituencies. Many Catholics and evangelical Christians who had supported the Democratic Party since the days of FDR now refuse to vote for what Ramesh Ponnuru has dubbed “the party of death.”
Fortunately for the Democrats, many people are still unaware that abortion on demand is the law of the land. Fewer still are aware, despite the issue being a major point of discussion in the recent health care debate, of the radically pro-abortion position supported by the Democratic Party. Although the country is still divided about abortion, polls consistently show that only 26 percent support the Democrat's abortion on demand position and that 61 percent oppose federal funding for the procedure. Does the average Democrat—particularly the Catholic and evangelicals in the party—realize that their party’s leadership and the majority of their elected representatives opposes all such limits—even those such as partial-birth abortion that border on infanticide?
Perhaps its better for them to remain ignorant for any opposition would prove impotent. Party leaders and strategists know that while they can ignore the pro-life contingent they must pledge their sacred allegiance to the abortion lobby. They realize to even suggest that Democratic legislators might want to temper their pro-abortion stance would send NARAL and NOW and other pro-abortion groups into a frenzy. So they cower and submit and deny the obvious political liabilities in order to pacify the extreme factions of the party.
In the meantime, many Democrats in Congress—from the handful of pro-lifers to numerous moderate pro-choicers—secretly pray that the Roberts Court will overturn Roe and send the issue back to the states. If the unconstitutional precedent is finally overturned the Democrat leadership will feign outrage and fume about back alley abortions—but they know that nothing will really change. Abortion will still be available in California and New York and banned—as it effectively is now—in South Dakota and Mississippi. But they'll have gained something that will elude them now and in the future: A chance to gain the loyalty and respect of Americans who care about the civil rights of the unborn.
Joe Carter is web editor of First Things.