Casey’s Heirs: The Plight of the Pro-Life Democrat

Congress was out of session on January 22,
but Representative Bart Stupak, a Michigan Democrat and coauthor of legislation to ban human cloning, had arrived at his office in the House Rayburn Building around 8 a.m. From his window, you could see morning commuters heading off to work on I-395.

Stupak was here early to do research on the side effects of Accutane, a popular acne drug that his 17-year-old son, Bart Jr., used to take — until May 14, 2000, when the high school football player shot himself in the head. The suicide generated deep sympathy, and many of Stupak’s Democratic colleagues responded. When the bereaved Stupak was forced to cancel a number of fund-raisers, prompting a strong Republican foe to enter the race, they gave him $100,000.

The gift wasn’t unusual given the circumstances. It was, however, rare for another reason: Pro-choice Democrats had gone out of their way to help a pro-lifer. Stupak, a former Michigan state trooper with broad shoulders and tight features, grew up in a strong Catholic family of ten kids. He himself points out that two antiabortion House members, running for the Senate in 2000, were defeated because of a lack of party support. "If you look at the last election, look at Bob Weygand in Rhode Island and Ron Klink in Pennsylvania, and despite all the promises in the Senate to help these guys out, it never came true. They were left hanging in the wind. You better have your own money because the Democratic Party is not going to help you out," he says.

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This is not to say Stupak doesn’t get along well with his Democratic colleagues — he’s thinking about running someday for a junior party leadership post. It’s just that he remembers their past scorn for his pro-life views, especially during his first term in 1993 and 1994. "They’d say, ‘You hate women,’ ‘You’re a Neanderthal,’ ‘Why don’t you join the Republican Party?’"

Casey at the bat

If Stupak’s comments about the party’s hard stance against pro-lifers sound familiar, it’s because they are.

In 1992, at the Democratic convention in New York City, Governor Robert P. Casey of Pennsylvania asked to address the delegates — and was denied. The official explanation was that Casey had failed to back the nominee, Bill Clinton. Yet that hadn’t kept fellow Clinton-snubber Kathleen Brown from speaking. The real reason Casey was denied was more cynical: At a party platform hearing in Cleveland in May 1992, he had urged Democrats to drop their commitment to abortion rights. He was a Hubert Humphrey who failed.

Since then, the party’s treatment of pro-lifers has eased somewhat, prompted by disastrous midterm elections in 1994, in which Democrats lost control of both chambers of Congress. In 1996, the party allowed language to be inserted in its platform that "recognized" differences on abortion; in 1998, it recruited pro-life candidates to fit conservative districts in the House; and at the 2000 convention, Democrats even allowed Casey’s sons to speak, albeit off-camera. Plus, within Congress itself, pro-choice and pro-life Democrats are said to get along fine.

Yet that’s as far as the party’s tolerance goes. Pro-lifers can join the rank-and-file, but they’ll have a hard time rising through the ranks — to the party’s leadership posts, to national office, let alone to the presidency. When they do try to move up, a variation of the "Casey Rule" comes into play: They won’t be formally silenced, but they will struggle to earn money and support.

And so their voices, like Casey’s, never reach a national audience. They are modern-day Free-Soilers, the abolitionist wing of the 1850s Democratic Party, which was then pro-choice on slavery. Their moral stance consigns them to regional status.

Pro-life Democrats are no fringe group, either. They represent about 15 percent of the party’s congressional ranks. (Of the 535 members of the House and Senate, between 35 and 40 are pro-life Democrats.) In fact, in the House, there are more pro-life Democrats than African-Americans.

But they are a regional group. Their home base is in the Midwest and, to a lesser extent, the South; they have no members at all in the West. Most represent blue-collar, heavily Catholic districts. They’re socially conservative and economically liberal or populist. Aside from the pope, their only real spokesman in recent years was Casey and their only intellectual was Christopher Lasch, both of whom are now dead.

Since abortion became a national issue in 1973, the story of pro-life Democrats has been one of decline. The Democratic Party platform in 1976 opposed a constitutional amendment to overturn Roe v. Wade. By 1980 the language had grown stronger, openly supporting the Roe decision. (Today it’s called a "fundamental constitutional liberty.") During the 1970s, the number of pro-life Democrats fell. They once comprised about half of the 280 or 290 Democratic members in the House.

In the 1980s, many were known as Reagan Democrats, and George W. Bush sought to make inroads with this group of voters. Still, no one talks about the "Bush Democrats." Stupak himself says that he had scheduled three meetings with Bush staffers on the 2002 cloning ban, but each time the administration had to cancel. A Bush spokeswoman didn’t return calls for comment.

Pro-life Democrats face an uncertain future. They may be proudly pro-life, but they aren’t loudly pro-life, or as willing to buck the party establishment as Robert Casey was. They don’t see themselves as part of some grand crusade to stop the estimated 1.2 million abortions performed in this country every year, though some talk about reducing that number. Their pro-life stance is rooted in a mixture of personal faith, deductive reasoning, and local politics — but not, at least publicly, in hopes of changing the world or the party.

The party’s over

How did this wing lose power? Why did the party of the little guy abandon the littlest of them all? Those are questions that have haunted millions of Catholics for more than a generation, and they stump political pros even today. Some historians have attributed the shift to the change in women’s economic status during the 1960s and 1970s: As women became more independent, they discovered their natural home was with Democrats. But that doesn’t explain why pro-choice feminists didn’t align with liberal Rockefeller Republicans.

The real answer is that during the late 1960s, the Democratic Party itself was radicalized. While it’s widely acknowledged that Southerners and Christian conservatives changed the Republican Party in the late 1970s, a strong case can be made that college students and pro-choice women were transforming the Democratic Party even more. As Hastings Wyman, the founder of the Southern Political Report, notes, one reason for this shift was the radical nature of reforms sought by feminists like Betty Friedan and Bella Abzug. Another reason was that, with the rise of television, the old boss system of choosing candidates, in which radical positions were penalized, was giving way to a primary system in which single-issue voters were rewarded.

Yet social liberals not only joined the Democratic Party; they rewrote that party’s rules. In 1969, they changed the way the delegates were chosen — a change that affected the party’s presidential nomination. Southerners and Catholics began leaving the Democratic Party, while African-Americans, students, and feminists started joining it.

It was the now-forgotten Reform Commission of the late 1960s that rewrote the rules. As Theodore White describes it in The Making of the President (1972), the commission came into existence at the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago. Approved the day after police and students had clubbed each other in Lincoln Park, its aim was to prevent future bloodshed. State parties must ensure, it stated, that "all of the Democratic voters have had full and timely opportunity to participate" (emphasis added) in the selection of delegates. A modest goal, but it soon turned into something more ambitious: to find a way to stop the Vietnam War.

Senator George McGovern was tapped to head the commission, and he in turn appointed three young staffers. One of those was Ken Bode, then a 30-year-old professor of political science and McGovern’s floor manager at the 1968 convention. He became the commission’s research director, working alongside Eli Segal (later head of Clinton’s AmeriCorps program). In the summer of 1969, they were joined by a young staff of summer interns, comprised mostly of Harvard Law graduates. Although Bode is best known today as the avuncular former host of the PBS show Washington Week in Review, he and the staff wanted no part of the status quo back then.

"There was a cleavage in society," Bode says. "People under 30 were fighting this war, and we said, ‘Count the number of [delegates to the 1968 convention] under 30 and women. Frankly, the idea was if you brought women into the party, there would have to be policy consequences — equal pay for equal work and the war, but not abortion, because that never came up."

What the staff found was that only 13 percent of the 1968 delegates had been women. To change this, they drew up a quota bill of sorts. State delegations must take "affirmative steps to encourage representation of minority groups on the national convention delegation in reasonable relationship to the group’s presence in the population of the states." The 28-member commission passed the bill on November 18, 1969; it went into effect during the 1972 convention. As a result, 43 percent of the Democratic delegates to the convention that year were women. In four years, the percentage of women as delegates had leaped more than threefold. (Today the party requires that delegates must be "equally divided" between male and female.)

The women who were joining the Democratic Party were mainly pro-choice. "I’ve not thought about it," Bode says, "[but] I think at the time the kind of women who would have been involved were pro-choice." Although the staff wasn’t thinking in these terms in 1969 — abortion didn’t become a campaign issue until 1972 — that’s what happened. A generation of Democratic female officeholders became almost uniformly pro-choice.

This would come as no surprise to Teddy White. In terms that must have seemed strange at the time, he predicted that the commission’s quota rule was a "cultural watershed" for the Democratic Party, changing its very philosophy. "By insisting on a fixed proportion of blacks, Indians, or Spanish-speaking [delegates] and ignoring, say, Italians, Poles, Irish, Jews, or old-stock colonials, it restricted." Among those restricted today are pro-life Democratic women. According to a 1998 poll by Wirthlin Worldwide, 40 percent of Democratic women identified themselves as pro-life.

The pro-life ceiling

But does the party’s official position still restrict, to the point that a pro-life Democrat could never be its standard-bearer? I put this question to pro-life Democrats in the Senate, an institution from which both parties frequently draw their presidential candidates.

My first day there was on January 23, 2002, when the Senate had just returned from its holiday break. The afternoon scene at the Capitol was typical — about 20 reporters standing in the southern hallway, right outside the small but ornate Lyndon B. Johnson Room, where they can talk to Democrats leaving their weekly caucus lunch and meeting.

Around 2:30 p.m., Senator John Breaux of Louisiana emerged. A knot of reporters descended, stopping him near the Senate floor. Breaux looked the part of a well-dressed high-government official — his hair slicked back, a three-cornered white handkerchief in his coat pocket. But as anyone who’s seen him on Sunday morning talk shows can attest, Breaux is down-to-earth and candid. He told me he saw no way a pro-lifer could get elected.

"You can’t get through the nomination process," he said simply. "I think you could win the general election but not the primary."


"Because the majority of the people who go to the convention would not vote for you," he said. "They wouldn’t do it."

What about the role of big-money donors, such as Planned Parenthood or Emily’s List?

"I don’t think the financial factor has been the big difference. I think it’s just who goes to the convention."

Breaux’s reply highlights the party’s post-1968 rules, and you wonder if he curses them at night. A Breaux presidential candidacy might have worked under the old boss system. His views on national issues are center-right: He was in favor of the 1993 Clinton tax increase, but he was also in favor of a capital gains tax cut; he wants to reform Medicare by improving current benefits — but also by adding competition. And he knows everybody. He must be the only politician in town who’s befriended George H.W. Bush (the two were tennis buddies), Bill Clinton (a regular correspondent during impeachment), and Trent Lott (whose daughter’s wedding Breaux attended). He’s also a party leader. He once chaired the Democratic Leadership Council and was the chief deputy whip in the Senate. But nowadays those credentials don’t matter. He’s "anti-choice."

Presidential candidates are not the only politicians whom pro-choicers can derail. Not since the Carter administration has a pro-life Democrat held a cabinet-level post. Clinton appointed a grand total of none. The only person in the upper half of his administration who opposed abortion was Raymond Flynn, the ambassador to the Vatican.

Even pro-life Democrats running for the Senate face big hurdles. Take the case of House member Robert A. Weygand of Rhode Island. When Weygand ran for the Senate in 2000, colleagues held back money and endorsements. Of course, his race was unusual because the primary election was held in September and the incumbent, Lincoln Chafee, had replaced his late father. And yet his opponent in the September primary race, Richard Licht, pounded him for his pro-life stance.

Weygand doesn’t complain much, but he does admit that his pro-life views hurt him. "It’s not easy, and I don’t think it’s easy no matter who you are. There are many people in the party who are pro-abortion," he says. "There was a hesitation there, especially early on, because I was running against a pro-abortion opponent [in the primaries]. When it came time for the general, they looked at the numbers, saw it for a while, but then pulled out."

I asked Senator Robert Torricelli, the former chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, about this. Torricelli says the committee had raised $2 million for Ron Klink, a pro-life Democrat from Pennsylvania, and that he himself had gone to a fund-raiser for Weygand. Then I asked if it was harder for Democrats to raise money for pro-life candidates. His answer goes a long way toward explaining the mindset of many Democrats about the right to life: "I mean, I hope we’ve gotten past that," he says. "This is an issue of personal conscience and failure to acknowledge differences within the party would be unfortunate. So I feel we should let those who are pro-choice and anti-choice exercise their conscience on this."

Casey’s heirs?

With an attitude like this so common among leading Democrats, it’s a wonder that pro-lifers stay in the party at all. Some do reluctantly. Representative Ken Lucas of Kentucky said in 2000 that he wouldn’t vote for a Gore presidency because of the latter’s pro-choice stance.

I met with Representative Ralph Hall of Texas in his office, which is also in the House Rayburn Building. Unlike Stupak, Hall not only knew Sam Rayburn, the Speaker of the House during most of the 1940s and 1950s; he raised money for him. "He was a great man," the 79-year-old Hall says in his Texas drawl. A great man, perhaps, but a man very different from Hall. Rayburn detested the Republican Party and its coziness with Big Business, whereas Hall is friends with George W. Bush and vows to "vote for the more conservative of the two" candidates for Speaker. His office doesn’t exactly put one in mind of the modern Democratic Party either — he has models of F-6 Hellcat fighter jets, which he flew during the Battle of Midway. In truth, Hall almost never votes with his party leadership.

Hall is strongly pro-life, but he sees no real need to bolt from the party. Fellow Democrats don’t pester him about the issue — they shouldn’t, given his district’s heavily conservative makeup. He wants to "keep the party from moving too far left." He sees abortion more in terms of a series of personal tragedies — he was a county judge during the 1950s in northeast Texas when scared pregnant girls would come to him — than as a national scourge that needs to be healed.

He wasn’t alone in those views. On the evening of the State of the Union address, I talked with Representative Frank Mascara of Pennsylvania, a pro-life Democrat and a Gore supporter. For Mascara, ensuring a healthy economy is more important than pushing for pro-life legislation. "People tend to be more concerned about the economy. Now we’re in a downturn, and if you’re out of work and if you have a car payment or a house payment…" he said, his voice trailing off.

Mascara represents towns just outside Pittsburgh, in the breathtaking hills and valleys of western Pennsylvania, where Casey drew his biggest support. In our 15-minute chat, I didn’t get the sense that he saw abortion the same way Casey did: as a tragedy worthy of risking one’s political life.

Maybe Stupak will be able to assume Casey’s mantle and take on the party establishment with candidness and daring. But if recent history is any guide, Casey’s heirs may not feel that it’s even worth a try.

Mark Stricherz, a contributor to, is the author of Why the Democrats are Blue: Secular Liberalism and the Decline of the People’s Party (Encounter Books). He blogs at This article originally appeared in the May 2002 issue of Crisis Magazine.


  • Mark Stricherz

    Mark Stricherz is the author of Why the Democrats Are Blue: Secular Liberalism and the Decline of the People’s Party.

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