Cover Story

Just how pro are these pro-lifers?

The Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion turns 34 years old this month, just as seven pro-life Democrats join the new majority on Capitol Hill. Here's what the power shift could mean for the pre-born

Issue: "Hope or hype?," Jan. 20, 2007

At the advent of a new Congress, a new Democratic majority, and a new batch of pro-life Democratic officials, it is easy to forget the Molly Pannells.

Pannell, 30, is a "domestic zookeeper" by trade-her affectionate term for a stay-at-home mom. The mother of three boys ages 5 and under, she spends most days with diapers, sippy cups, and hope for the ultimate maternal trifecta: the simultaneous three-kid nap.

But once a week for a little over a year now, Pannell has headed to the Capitol Hill Pregnancy Center (CHPC), a nonprofit that helps pregnant women-mostly minority and low-income-with free childbirth and parenting classes, housing and job-training referrals, and material resources like diapers, formula, and baby clothes, often maintaining relationships with them well into their children's toddlerhood.

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Most volunteers at CHPC are conservative evangelicals. Pannell is Catholic and a registered Democrat who worked with Feminists for Life after college and left the group in 2000. But the center's mostly volunteer staff is united on "helping women in need," Pannell said. "Whoever can help us do that-Republican, Democrat, Independent, Green Party-we'll take the help."

In 2006, the rhetorical moderation on abortion and a slate of pro-life candidates, among other issues, vaulted the Democratic Party into position to help reduce the number of abortions. Now, pro-life constituents like Molly Pannell are hoping their party will walk that talk.

Leaders such as Joe Turnham, chairman of the Alabama Democratic Party and a voting member of the Democratic National Committee, display optimism. "The Democrats would not control Congress today if not for the efforts of the pro-life candidates," he said. "I think that the Democratic leadership at the party and congressional level understands that it is not only good to accommodate, but to celebrate pro-life Democrats, and to work with them on the issues."

Democrats for Life of America executive director Kristin Day said the timing of the congressional power shift bodes well for party pro-lifers. "If the Democrats had taken over Congress two years ago, it would've been bad" from a pro-life perspective. But Republicans' 2004 victories led to a new realism and "a real opportunity to change [other] Democrats' minds on abortion."

Indeed, Democrats last year not only hung out a welcome sign for some pro-life candidates but actively solicited others. When former NFL quarterback Heath Shuler (D-N.C.), a pro-life evangelical, wavered on running for Congress, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chairman Rahm Emmanuel called in the big guns-former president Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, and then--House Minority Leader Stenny Hoyer-to close the deal.

Would his pro-life views be a problem? Shuler asked his Democratic recruiters. "You're representing a district," he was most often told, according to his press secretary Andrew Whalen: "As long as you represent your district and vote your conscience, we won't have a problem."

Newly elected Sen. Bob Casey Jr. may personify the Democratic turnabout: In 1992, the DNC refused to allow Casey's father, then governor of Pennsylvania, to speak at the party's national convention because he opposed abortion. But heading into 2006, party leaders recruited the younger Casey to run against pro-life incumbent Republican Rick Santorum, specifically because they felt Casey's Catholic faith and pro-life views would help neutralize Santorum's family-values appeal.

They did. Voters sent Casey to the Senate and six new pro-life Democrats to the House, including Shuler, Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Brad Ellsworth of Indiana, Charlie Wilson of Ohio, and Chris Carney and Jason Altmire both of Pennsylvania, bringing the total number of Democrats in the pro-life caucus to between 35 and 40, depending on how you measure "pro-life."

The question now is, has the party enlarged its tent enough to respect pro-life views, or only added a temporary election-year annex?

Conservative activists who have long watched the ebb and flow of congressional power are skeptical. During the George H.W. Bush administration, Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the pro-life Susan B. Anthony List, worked for Rep. Alan Mollohan (D-W.Va.), coordinating the Democratic contingent of the congressional pro-life caucus.

"There are many sincere pro-life Democrats whom I greatly admire, but the number of pro-life Democrats now is about the same as it was then, and the caucus's perspective is about the same," Dannenfelser said. "They will allow people to have some conscience votes and not whip every issue. We'll spend all our time trying to keep taxpayer money from funding abortion and trying to stem the tide of experimentation with the smallest human beings. No real pro-life legislation will get to the floor. It's the same game we had to play in '91."

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