Life of the party
Abortion extremism has become the norm for Democrats at the national level, but some state and local Democrats are pushing back with success
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When Camille Vella-Wilkinson first ran for political office in 2010, she remembered the advice of hardened campaigners: avoid controversial issues and focus instead on what she hoped to accomplish as a councilwoman for the city of Warwick, R.I. But one of the first doors she knocked on would change all of that.
The door opened, and an older gentleman wearing a crucifix peered at her. She gave a quick spiel to convince him of why he should support her bid.
But the first question out of his mouth threw her off her equilibrium. “Are you pro-life or pro-choice?” he asked.
“I’m just running for City Council,” Vella-Wilkinson told him, slightly bemused. “You realize that’s a federal question?”
The man told her that as a pro-life Christian, he believed it would be irresponsible for him to vote for someone who might climb the political ladder without knowing where she stood on the issue.
“That shifted my viewpoint,” Vella-Wilkinson told WORLD. After that, she said, she openly talked with voters about her pro-life views.
As a pro-life Democrat, Vella-Wilkinson is what many believe is a dying breed, especially in a party that has enshrined abortion in its platform. A quick survey of the 24 contenders for the Democratic nomination for president in 2020 reveals the party’s dogma. Not a single contender has voiced a pro-life stance. Instead, all have promised to support the wildest dreams of the abortion lobby—dreams that include repealing the 1976 Hyde Amendment, nominating judges who will protect Roe v. Wade (U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts called for Congress to codify the right to an abortion into law to circumvent the Supreme Court altogether), and repealing the Protecting Life in Global Health Assistance policy so American tax dollars fund projects involving abortion overseas. U.S. Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey even floated a promise to establish an “office of reproductive freedom” in the White House.
Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez declared in April 2017 that “every Democrat, like every American” should support abortion. “That is not negotiable and should not change city by city or state by state.”
In states like Nevada, New York, Illinois, and Vermont, Democratic majorities have agreed: They have moved to strip away almost all limits on abortion and to codify the right to an abortion in state law.
But in other Democrat-led states, abortion expansion has stalled, often due to the efforts of pro-life Democrats. Some state lawmakers are showing that, with the buffer of pro-life constituents, they can resist the heavyweight political forces that have radicalized the party and vote their conscience.
More than 130 Democratic state lawmakers have voted either for a pro-life bill or against an abortion expansion bill this year, according to data from the Family Research Council. (The number does not necessarily mean the lawmakers describe themselves as pro-life in general. It also does not include votes on bills aimed at regulating abortion, such as bills regarding waiting periods or informed consent.)
“Around one-third of Democrats consider themselves pro-life,” notes Kristen Day, president of Democrats for Life. She believes the push to expand abortion access to the second and third trimesters has caused “more pro-life Democrats to come out of the woodwork. … I see a lot more people speaking out and voting pro-life.”
A 2018 Gallup poll found that 65 percent of Americans thought abortion should be illegal after the first three months of pregnancy, and 81 percent believed abortion should be illegal in the last three months of pregnancy. What remains to be seen is whether these voters will speak up to the extent that lawmakers will resist party pressure and the influence of the abortion lobby.
In March, the Democrat-led New Mexico Senate rejected an effort to repeal several state statutes that restrict abortion. (The statutes would apply if the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade.)
The state is not exactly known for being friendly to protecting life. The state has no gestational limit for abortion, causing one pro-abortion group to rank New Mexico No. 1 in the nation for easy abortion access. Pro-life groups in New Mexico said they believed voters speaking out is what ultimately defeated the “Decriminalize Abortion Bill” in March. More than 22,000 voters signed a petition opposing the bill. According to the New Mexico House GOP’s website, 98 percent of 25,000 callers to the governor’s office opposed the abortion bill. In the end, eight Democrats joined 16 Republicans to reject the bill in an 18-24 vote.
“Representatives and senators said they’ve never received so many letters and phone calls from constituents,” said Dominique Davis, president of New Mexico’s Project Defending Life. “I think those eight Democrats in particular really listened.”
DEMOCRATS KNOW THAT LISTENING to their voters puts them in a precarious political position. After taking a stand for life, they must hold on to their seats without the same party support their colleagues receive. This often means the party excludes them from fundraising events or appearing onstage with other Democrats. They also find themselves the target of organizations like EMILY’s List, NARAL Pro-Choice America, and Planned Parenthood, which throw the weight of their huge social media platforms and fundraising campaigns behind rival pro-abortion candidates.
This strategy has been highly effective at reducing the number of pro-life voices in Congress, where there are only three pro-life Democrats in the House and only two in the Senate.
In May, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairwoman Cheri Bustos of Illinois canceled a fundraiser on behalf of one of them, U.S. Rep. Dan Lipinski of Illinois, due to his pro-life views. Lipinski scraped by a bruising primary in 2018, winning by only two points, and is facing the same pro-abortion challenger in 2020. His rival, Marie Newman, has racked up endorsements from NARAL, Planned Parenthood Action Fund, and EMILY’s List.
Lipinski told WORLD he doesn’t believe “party leadership understands how detrimental it is to the party to be pushing out people who are pro-life. … I’ve had so many people tell me, ‘I used to be a Democrat, but I’m pro-life and decided I couldn’t be a Democrat anymore.”
Attempts to enforce a pro-abortion party line on Democratic legislators have not worked as well at the state level. After toppling her pro-abortion incumbent to earn a seat in the Rhode Island House of Representatives in 2016, Vella-Wilkinson drew the ire of the state’s pro-abortion groups.
After her first year in the House, a group of progressives told her they would mount a door-to-door campaign against her to make voters in her district aware of her “anti-woman” views. She told them to go ahead. After knocking on 24 doors, they gave up.
“Two people weren’t home, but the 22 told them, ‘Of course we know she’s pro-life, that’s why I voted for her!’” Vella-Wilkinson said. The group had deployed their campaign in the center of Vella-Wilkinson’s parish, people at her church later told her.
Vella-Wilkinson has continued to be open about her views. Earlier this year, she found herself arguing with her colleagues against the most major abortion expansion bill in the state since 1993. “I didn’t want an extreme abortion bill in my state, so I supported the Republicans wholeheartedly,” she said.
The House passed the bill by a 44-30 vote, a relatively slim margin for the state’s deeply blue General Assembly. (There are nine Republicans in the 75-member House of Representatives, and only five in the 38-member Senate.) However, the bill later died in a Senate committee after four Democrats sided with one Republican to reject it 5-4.
After the vote, the committee members faced a horde of angry pro-abortion protesters. Sen. Harold Metts, a Democrat and Baptist deacon who voted against the bill, had to be escorted out of the Capitol by security. One woman began cursing at him as he made his way to the elevator, and even threatened to come find him at his church. He alerted security at his church, though she did not follow through with her threat.
Metts said nothing would have intimidated him into voting differently. “Some people will say, you’re a Democrat and [abortion] is in your platform.” Metts, who is African American, says he will respond, “And the platform years ago was slavery; doesn’t mean I support that.”
On May 31, Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, signed a bill to protect babies from abortion once a heartbeat is detectable.
Louisiana state Sen. John Milkovich, the bill’s sponsor, told WORLD he believed the spectacle of New York state lawmakers cheering their late-term abortion bill bolstered support for the Louisiana bill.
But the abortion lobby, and the lawmakers committed to entrenching abortion across the nation, will keep lawmakers like Metts, Milkovich, and Vella-Wilkinson busy fighting for life. In Rhode Island, a reworked version of the abortion expansion bill advanced out of a different, more staunchly pro-abortion committee on June 13. The bill codifies Roe v. Wade in the state and allows late-term abortions “when necessary to preserve the health or life” of the mother. On June 19, the bill passed the Senate 21-17, and the House 45-29. Within the hour Gov. Gina Raimondo, a Catholic, signed it.
Vella-Wilkinson says she and some pro-life colleagues plan to introduce a bill next year to require abortionists to administer anesthesia to unborn babies during abortions. Fellow Democrats rejected including it as an amendment.
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