Talking Points

The end of pro-life Democrats

Sen. Bob Casey Jr. (D-Pa.) is going to vote with the overwhelming majority of his party in favor of a Democratic bill to codify Roe v. Wade in the aftermath of a leak showing a majority of the Supreme Court may be ready to reverse the 1973 abortion decision.

Casey's reversal signals the end for pro-life Democrats. He has campaigned as a moderate opponent of abortion, a stance that helped him win his Senate seat in the 2006 race against Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.). His father and namesake was an even stronger pro-life Democrat. 

Indeed, the elder Bob Casey, then governor of Pennsylvania, was denied a speaking slot at the 1992 Democratic National Convention at least in part because of his abortion views. And he was the "Casey" in Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992), a decision that came within a Justice Anthony Kennedy of overturning Roe 30 years ago and still wound up expanding the range of permissible abortion restrictions.

Now there is at most one maximally pro-life Democrat in each house of Congress. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W. Va) represents a state that voted for former President Donald Trump by 40 points and is its last Democratic lawmaker. Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) is facing a primary challenge and intense criticism within the party. And though Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) was first elected to the House as an abortion opponent, as the Democratic nominee for Senate, he now defends late-term abortions. He's following a Democratic tradition that includes President Biden himself

If Roe truly goes, the partisan sorting on abortion will have paid one dividend to the pro-life cause: Republican presidents, especially Trump, who sent the issue back to the states. But the disappearance of pro-life Democrats could make it harder to enact a more just post-Roe abortion regime or create a patchwork of wildly disparate laws in red and blue states.

Political movements often benefit from bipartisan support. The Hyde amendment, which bans most federal funding of abortion, is named after a Republican congressman but was first passed by a Democratic majority. Now it could be imperiled by the next blue wave, at a moment when abortion policy may be more controlled by elected officials than at any time in the last half century.