Principles of Pro-life Voting

“Vote Pro-life.”

A common refrain this time of year. It’s good advice, but it requires more than a bit of interpretation. According to the Sojourners crowd, voting pro-life means casting ballots for unyielding stalwarts of taxpayer funded abortion (but don’t worry, they still want to reduce the incidence of abortion /sarc). Others have far stricter litmus tests, like support for a right to life Constitutional amendment. Here are my own, non-definitive thoughts about the best ways to truly vote pro-life

What is ‘Pro-life’?

Kay Bailey Hutchison, a retiring Republican Senator from Texas, is on record as favoring the right to abortion. In 2003, she voted to support the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade. And yet, she usually got high marks from pro-life organizations based on her Senate voting record. In the present Congress for example, she voted to defund Planned Parenthood, and supported the Blunt amendment to overturn the HHS mandate. Essentially, she’s a pro-life vote on almost anything short of an outright ban.

Some pro-life organizations advise against voting for legislators like Hutchison. I disagree with that thinking. Hutchison is not ideal, but I will gladly accept smaller legislative victories like defunding PP. If a legislator will vote the right way on every measure that actually has a decent chance of passing, that’s good enough for me.

For the purposes of voting, I consider a candidate “pro-life” if they oppose taxpayer funding of abortion, support conscience protections for medical professionals and institutions, and support common sense restrictions on practices like partial-birth or sex selective abortion. Some Democrats do not even meet these minimal standards, but still insist on disingenuously calling themselves “pro-life” –  for this reason, be wary of any Democrat who applies that label to himself.

Pro-choice Republican vs. Pro-choice Democrat

This is always a painful match-up. As much as it grieves me, I would probably vote for the Republican. First of all, just as “pro-life” Democrats can actually be quite pro-choice, many “pro-choice” Republicans will often vote with pro-lifers depending on the precise issue. In 2011, there was one vote where every Republican in the House of Representatives, including those who call themselves “pro-choice”, voted against taxpayer funded abortion. Also consider that if there had been just one more Republican in the Senate in 2009, whether pro-life or pro-choice, there would be no Obamacare today.

Sometimes though, the pro-choice Republican really is a total dud. Jacob Javits, a New York Senator until 1981, is a good example of a legislator who was utterly worthless to conservatives of any stripe. Even in those cases, I would still vote for the Republican. With a few exceptions, like the West Virginia legislature, no pro-life legislation is ever likely to get through unless Republicans have majorities. Committee chairmanships are extremely important.

What about voting for a third party candidate, or not voting? I look at either of those actions as basically ceding the decision to the rest of the electorate – saying that you do not care which of the two principal candidates wins. Because of committee chairmanships, I think there’s almost always reason to care who wins. I will admit an exception to this rule if the vast majority of Republicans in a state are pro-choice. This may or may not be the case in some of the New England states.

There is also the argument that it is best for the Republican party to be purified, and therefore pro-choice Republicans should be stopped whenever possible. This is a powerful line of reasoning. But in my opinion it should be reserved for primaries. If a pro-choice Republican cannot be taken down in a primary, the problem is not with the candidate – the problem is with the Republican voters.

Pro-life Republican vs. Pro-life Democrat

30 years ago, voting for the Democrat might have been a good idea. Pro-life Democrats were common in the party, and it would have been a shrewd move to help keep them common. Today, however, pro-life Democrats are almost extinct, and they’re not coming back. So you’re better off sticking with the Republican. A voter can rightfully question why a pro-life politician would purposefully align himself with such a horrifyingly anti-life political party. And once again, there is the question of which party controls the legislature. With Pelosi as Speaker, or Leahy as chairman of the judiciary committee, it’s cold comfort that some of the Democrats who put them in those positions are pro-life.

Pro-choice Republican vs. Pro-life Democrat

This might be the trickiest match up of all. Once again, voters should remember that “pro-life” Democrats and “pro-choice” Republicans do not always live up to their labels. And once again, voters should remember that leadership on the committees and in the legislature as a whole is crucially important. For these reasons, the Indiana Right to Life chapter decided in 2010 that they would no longer endorse pro-life Democrats. As a spokesman said, “We want people to understand that Democratic leaders have forced us to draw this hard line. We’ve tried to work with Democratic legislators in good faith, but their actions speak louder than words. Our legislation is killed every year by Democrats in the state legislature. Top Democratic leaders in Washington are dismantling pro-life gains we’ve worked for over four decades to achieve. And now we have been betrayed by three Indiana Democratic congressmen on the health care reform vote at the precise time when we needed them the most.”

Thus, much as I would hate to do so, I think I would vote for the Republican in most of these cases. But I can think of some circumstances where voting for the Democrat would be better. If Republicans have a safe legislative majority, but many of the Republican legislators are pro-choice, voting for the Democrat is a very wise move. Also, if it’s a race for governor, I would not hesitate at all to vote for a strongly pro-life Democrat. Finally, in states where Democrats dominate the legislatures, I would definitely vote for the Democrat. In Rhode Island for example, the Republicans have no hope of capturing the legislature for the foreseeable future, but there still is a very strong pro-life presence within the Democratic party.

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The 1971 Kennedy Letter, and the Tragic Mirage of Pro-life Liberalism

If you’ve been around the pro-life movement for a while, you’ve probably heard of the letter Senator Ted Kennedy wrote in 1971 defending the unborn’s right to life.

If not, read it for yourself right now.

Whether or not the letter really reflected Kennedy’s views at the time is unknown. On the one hand, it was almost certainly some staffer or intern who wrote the letter rather than the Senator himself. Furthermore, Kennedy proved a loyal pro-choice vote in Congress the moment the ink dried on Roe v. Wade, and there is also some good evidence that his pro-choice stance dates as far back as 1964. On the other hand, it seems unlikely that Kennedy’s office would bother writing such an extensive letter to a non-consituent if Kennedy did not strongly believe in what the letter said.

Regardless of the letter’s sincerity, I have always found it a very moving, and inspiring bit of writing. In just a few short paragraphs, the pro-life case is laid out clearly, lovingly, and convincingly. The very last sentence is especially poignant

When history looks back to this era it should recognize this generation as one which cared about human beings enough to halt the practice of war, to provide a decent living for every family, and to fulfill its responsibility to its children from the very moment of conception.

As I read these words, I think about the vision for America they express. It’s a liberal vision, to be sure, but one where the unborn are loved, treasured, and protected. It’s a vision animated by uncorrupted and unadulterated kindness, empathy, and selflessness. And tragically, it’s a vision which is now lost forever.

But for one brief halcyon moment in the early to mid ’70s, tenderhearted pro-life liberalism had a real chance to become a major ideological stream within America. In those days, liberal icon Jesse Jackson would frequently speak in favor of the right to life. In 1972 the Massachusetts legislature approved an amendment to the state constitution to make all abortion illegal forever. Such was the status quo of the abortion issue in the only state in America which voted for McGovern the same year. Even after Roe, one of the strongest voices for life in Congress was Senator Harold Hughes, an ultra-liberal Democrat from Iowa. For a time, the heavily Democratic state of Rhode Island included a pro-life plank in the state Democratic party platform, and the legislature once called for a US Constitution amendment to recognize the right to life.

This was just some of the “seamless garment” pro-life liberalism which was quite common during the 1970s. But time marched on, and the glorious illusion vanished. Sexual libertinism rapidly and irrevocably invaded and took over liberal thought. Love for our unborn neighbors was just one casualty, along with respect for religious freedom. Care and concern for the entire human community fell by the wayside. In its place came an angry and self-centered generation, scornful of self-abnegation, and seeking freedom from all responsibility.

I write all this as a longtime conservative – I’d still rather have lived in early ’70s Utah than early ’70s Massachusetts. And yet, a lot of conservatism’s facets, like its slavish devotion to capitalism, its knee-jerk hatred of all taxes, its jingoistic flag waving, and its seeming aversion to peacemaking can often sadden me. But, given the current state of liberalism, it’s not as if I have anywhere else to go.

I wish the liberalism of Kennedy’s 1971 letter was still around, and that it could be the chief ideological rival to contemporary conservatism. America would be a nicer, more loving, and more responsible place, and a lot of conservatives wouldn’t have to worry so much about losing at the polls. A lot more children would be around too.

But what’s lost is lost. And I don’t see it ever coming back. Sadly, pro-life liberalism will have to remain a bittersweet memory which grows more and more distant with each passing year.