In the streets of Laredo, Texas, Congressman Henry Cuellar is fighting for his political life. Today, he faces a runoff election in the Democratic primary. Cuellar is the last of a once substantial gang of pro-life Democrats. As I wrote in March, Cuellar is hardly a pro-life darling. In 2015, Cuellar voted for the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, which would have established a national twenty-week ban on abortions. That same year, however, he voted against the Defund Planned Parenthood Act. His lifetime rating from the National Right to Life Committee is only 28 percent, and he has never been a regular at the March for Life. Yet because the Democratic party requires total commitment to abortion extremism, abortion advocates are now actively gunning for Cuellar. A man of humble farm-worker origins, some now call him the “King of Laredo.” His crown is in jeopardy, but he has not been completely abandoned by his party.
House Whip Jim Clyburn recently stood by Cuellar’s side, indicating that Democrat leadership fears a Republican could take the seat if the progressive and ardently pro-abortion Jessica Cisneros is the nominee. During his campaign swing through South Texas, Clyburn said, “Which is more important—to have a pro-life Democrat or to have an anti-abortion Republican?” Clyburn also stated, “I don’t believe we ought to have a litmus test in the Democratic party.”
Not everyone agrees with Clyburn. The Democratic Attorneys General Association was the first party-affiliated funding organization to institute an explicit abortion purity test during the 2020 election cycle. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand has said her party should be “100 percent pro-choice, and it should be nonnegotiable.” Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has called opposition to the Hyde Amendment—which prohibits most federal funding for abortions and for which Cuellar is the last Democratic supporter in the House—a “base level where all candidates need to be.” AOC is actively supporting Cisneros. Like many others in the party, she sees the effort to drum out the last of the anti-abortion Democrats as a noble crusade.
Out of step with that drum beat, the Democrats for Life of America organization serves as a gathering place for the eclectic coalition of pro-lifers who have stuck with the Democratic party despite its increasing abortion absolutism. Under the leadership of Kristen Day, a former chief of staff for Congressman Jim Barcia, DLA staffers are drawn from communities—Hispanics, African Americans, Catholics—that have historic ties to both the party and social conservatism. There are also links to groups such as the Secular Pro-Life organization, which argues: “You don’t have to be religious to have a problem with killing humans.”
The folks at DFLA probably like hearing Clyburn, a pro-abortion African American from South Carolina, talk about a “big tent” party with room for pro-lifers. Nevertheless, they know that the current climate is far from welcoming. On their website, DFLA adds up the days (over 400 and counting) since it first sought a meeting with Democratic National Committee Chairman Jaime Harrison. Harrison is the first DNC chair to refuse such a sit-down. The saga eventually prompted DFLA to call for Harrison’s resignation, citing a “refusal to include pro-life Democrats in [the] big tent.”
Cuellar’s spotlighted race and DFLA’s tussle with the DNC come at a time when the name of one of history’s most prominent pro-life Democrats is regularly in the news. The “Casey” in the 1992 case Planned Parenthood v. Casey, which a leaked draft indicates the Supreme Court may soon reverse, belongs to Bob Casey Sr., then governor of Pennsylvania. Gov. Casey had signed abortion restrictions that prompted the case and was a longtime vocal champion for the pro-life cause. The Democrats’ refusal to let Casey speak on abortion at their 1992 national convention has long been seen as a symbolic hinge point cementing the party’s pro-abortion orthodoxy.
Casey titled his 1996 autobiography Fighting for Life. The book jacket notes that Casey considered himself the “first of the New Democrats,” but time has shown him to be one of the last old-style pro-lifers in his party. His son, Sen. Bob Casey Jr., carried on his father’s name and a bit of his legacy. The younger Casey was never as outspoken on abortion as his father but would sometimes break from his party to vote for pro-life legislation. However, his recent vote for the Orwellian-named Women’s Health Protection Act—a bill that would have codified, nationalized, and expanded the abortion rights found in Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey—seemingly signaled the end of his time as a pro-life Democrat.
West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin was the only Senate Democrat to oppose the sweeping bill. Manchin, who in 2011 described himself as “pro-life and proud of it,” has been a stalwart defender of the Hyde Amendment even as longtime supporters like Joe Biden have fallen by the wayside. However, Manchin accompanied his “no” on the WHPA with a stated willingness to vote for another bill that would have “codified” but not expanded Roe, complicating his pro-life credentials.
Similar muddy waters have entered the race along the Rio Grande. An outside group supporting Cuellar has run an ad stating that the congressman “has made it clear that he opposes a ban on abortion.” The ad is based on a Cuellar statement issued after the recent Supreme Court leak that said, “[W]e cannot have an outright ban. There must be exceptions in the case of rape, incest and danger to the life of the mother.” Cuellar has not gone out of his way to clarify matters in response to the ad.
A bit like the Bret Maverick character made famous by James Garner, the charming Cuellar, who has had his own brushes with the law, may not be the purest of all pro-lifers, but he usually comes out on the side of right in the end. Should Cuellar survive this latest shoot-out, the legacy of pro-life Democrats in the House will live to see another day, if only by the skin of its teeth.
John Murdock is an attorney who writes from Boise.
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