Pro-life groups, led by Virginia’s Governor Bob McDonnell, scored an important victory in the state legislature yesterday. By a vote of 20-19, the Senate in the Commonwealth of Virginia passed a law restricting the use of state Medicaid funds for abortions, except in cases of rape, incest or to protect the life of the mother. The bipartisan measure was passed with the votes of three Democratic senators as well as all 17 Republican members of the Commonwealth’s Senate.
The new law is important in at least two regards. First, the vote was bipartisan. Many voters do not consider abortion the most important or decisive issue in how they vote. It is critical that the pro-life movement consciously make efforts to transcend partisanship because voters may elect their representatives for a variety of reasons, but once in the legislature, there must be an incentive for Democrats to vote in favor of pro-life causes. Additionally, and really more importantly, we pro-lifers must believe that our concern for life really does transcend other, partisan categories, that it is a foundational concern no matter who wins any given election, that the promotion and protection of life is something that strikes deeply, very deeply, more deeply than the cultural zeitgeist or the political winds.
The second reason the measure is important is that it points the way towards the next logical step in the pro-life cause. The year-long health care debate did not only change the law, it changes the political discourse. If anything is clear, to all sides, from the recent debate, it is that abortion is not just another medical procedure. It is also clear that the Democrats, yes the Democrats, just spent a year arguing that their proposals do not and should not permit federal funding of abortion. But, if the feds should not pay for abortion with tax dollars, why should the states? It is still public money, collected from all citizens, and many of those citizens view the procedure as morally abhorrent. It strains the bounds of logic for Democrats to now argue that state monies should be used for abortion. McDonnell and the senators in Virginia simply demanded that the logic of the recent health care debate regarding abortion be applied at the state level too. Pro-lifers who live in states where Medicaid currently pays for abortion should take their cue from Virginia and seek to end state subsidies for abortion through Medicaid.
The Virginia path contrasts sharply with the political strategy announced by groups like the Family Research Council (FRC), the Susan B. Anthony fund, and Gary Bauer’s Campaign for Working Families PAC. The FRC, for example, has announced a $500,000 campaign against pro-life Democrats who supported the health care bill. These pro-life Democrats were convinced, as I was convinced, that the bill did not include federal funding for abortion. But, even if you do not think the restrictions were sufficiently airtight, punishing long-time pro-life Democrats over this one provision is bad strategy for the pro-life movement. It makes it appear partisan. And, it guarantees that if the Democrats maintain their congressional majority, the leadership will have no one in their own ranks to make the pro-life cause.
I have mentioned before an incident from last autumn that showed me how important it is to have pro-life voices within the caucuses of both parties. I attended a Comedy Night at the Democratic Club, and there was Congressman Bart Stupak having dinner at a table with a dozen or so colleagues including House Democratic Whip Rep. Jim Clyburn and Democratic Caucus Chairman John Larson. Both of these leaders are pro-choice, but both of them consider Stupak a friend as well as a colleague. They may disagree with Stupak’s pro-life position, but they must also listen to it. Stupak is retiring, but if there are no pro-life Democrats to make the case within that party’s caucus, there are a variety of ways that the pro-life movement will suffer.
The pro-life movement had a difficult time taking "Yes" for an answer during the health care debate. Now, they need to realize that the health care debate opened opportunities to advance the pro-life cause that did not esixt before. But, if they embark on a strategy of vilifying longtime supporters because those members read the bill differently, they will only succeed in missing the opportunity to continue changing the nation’s political discourse about the sanctity of human life. In Richmond yesterday, those changes brought about a positive change in the law. What will the Family Research Council achieve with its spending spree, even if it works? More Republicans. That is a perfectly fine objective in the political realm, but it is not and cannot be the principal concern of the pro-life movement.
Michael Sean Winters