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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.

Just how pro are these pro-lifers?

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.

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."

That "game" pitted most Republicans and the relative handful of pro-life Democrats against the bulk of the then-majority Democratic Party, which had burnished its image as the champion of abortion on demand. Democratic officials happily accepted contributions from groups like Planned Parenthood and Emily's List that swooped in on state and federal elections to sprinkle cash like fetal crop dust. And most elected Democrats could be counted on to vote against any restrictions on abortion.

Most, but not all.

In some states, especially in the South, conservative Democrats quietly united with Republican majorities to pass parental consent and notification laws, along with measures holding abortion businesses to the same standards as other out-patient medical clinics. In Congress, conservative Democrats such as Rep. Lincoln Davis of Tennessee and Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska racked up consistent pro-life voting records. And on the streets, the Molly Pannells told pollsters over and over again that they didn't like abortion. In the early 2000s, Zogby, Gallup, and others found that between half and two-thirds of Democratic voters thought most abortions should be outlawed.

After Republican victories in 2000, 2002, and 2004, Democrats are not treating the Pregnant Woman Support Act, a bill Davis first introduced last September, as dead on arrival. The measure is a bundle of proposals that would, among other things, establish a toll-free number to direct women to places that will provide support; make the adoption tax credit permanent; support informed consent for abortion services; increase funding for domestic violence programs; require state and federal health plans to cover pregnant women and unborn children; provide incentives to reduce teen pregnancy; and give housing grants to pregnant college students who wish to continue their education.

The devil is in the details, of course. Adoption tax credits and some other segments might enjoy bipartisan support, but defenders of abortion have fought informed-consent provisions in many states and sometimes turned the term "medically accurate" into legislative code that means "abortion is harmless." Differences on how to reduce unmarried pregnancy remain.

Davis told WORLD that his measure is "both a pro-life and pro-choice" bill that "doesn't punish anyone. . . . It doesn't bring guilt. It just offers additional options that people don't have today." Representing southeastern Tennessee, Davis seems all good ole boy ("I've got 180,000 miles on my old pickup truck from drivin' it around my district"), all Southern Baptist ("When I get sworn in, I'm gonna use the Bible my daddy gave my mother in 1955, after they wore out their old one") and all Democrat ("I'm just fed up with this crap of Republicans using abortion politically and doing nothing about it").

He said that Republicans during their 12-year majority "did nothing to reduce the number of abortions," perhaps echoing a Democratic talking point that reared its head in 2005. On Meet the Press early that year, Sen. John Kerry said to host Tim Russert, "Do you know that in fact abortion has gone up in these last few years with the draconian policies that Republicans have put into place?" On the same program in May, Howard Dean told Russert, "Abortions have gone up 25 percent since George W. Bush was named president."

Abortion reporting lags by at least three years, so current figures are hard to come by (which apparently didn't hamper either Kerry or Dean). But during the first three years of the Bush presidency, the numbers fell by about one percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. As to Davis's statement on Republican effectiveness, abortion numbers dropped from 1.27 million in 1994, the year of the "Republican Revolution," to just over 848,000 in 2003, the most recent year for which data is available.

Planned Parenthood and other pro-abortion groups acknowledge the drops, but argue that comprehensive sex education and increased use of birth control triggered them. Studies of CDC data by WORLD and the Heritage Foundation, though, showed that the number of abortions declined most rapidly in states with parental consent and notification laws largely ushered through by Republican majorities. (Mississippi is an exception: Conservative Democrats there control both houses of the legislature and since the late '90s have passed a raft of pro-life laws, slashing abortion numbers in the state.)

Davis also said that the "life issue" should be expanded to include human-rights and economic concerns, such as helping low-income pregnant women. The concept dovetails with the "95-10 Initiative," a project of Democrats for Life of America (DFLA), which aims to reduce the number of abortions by 95 percent over 10 years. Kristin Day notes that while Congress is funding at record level Title X-which provides access to free contraceptive supplies and education-lawmakers have not made the same commitment to women who want to rear their babies.

"Our No. 1 priority is having the Congress and the country really place an emphasis on helping pregnant women," said Day, whose group backs Davis' bill. "There are pregnancy centers that help, but not enough people know about them. Not enough women know there is support for them to bring a baby to term."

Day said pro-life Democrats "have a big job to do" in educating party leaders on the value of pregnancy resource centers. She noted repeated anti-pregnancy-center campaigns waged by Congressman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), and others. In March 2006, Maloney introduced the "Stop Deceptive Advertising for Women's Services Act," an attack on pregnancy centers that libeled the vast majority by equating them with the handful of clinics that in the early '90s led women to believe they provided abortion services.

Care Net media director Kristen Hansen said Maloney was recycling old charges and "couldn't bring any instances of deceptive advertising." But the headlines still ran and the image still stands, she said. "And we're so busy that we're not launching multi-million ad campaigns about the work that pregnancy centers do-we're doing the work."

Still, in a year of widely touted Democratic moderation on abortion, the bill racked up 45 co-sponsors, including Waxman, who complained that pregnancy centers had received $30 million in federal funding through Bush administration grants. Twenty of 23 centers contacted by Democratic staff investigators, the report claimed, had issued "false or misleading information" about the potential risks of abortion, including increased risk of breast cancer, infertility, and psychological trauma.

Credible research studies say such risks are real. Still, headlines ensued. And now, Waxman will head the Government Operations and Reform Committee, the same committee that in the early '90s went after pregnancy centers, trying to shut them all down.

Some pro-life Democrats will also chair committees: Rep. Jim Oberstar of Minnesota (Transportation Committee); Rep. Collin Peterson, also of Minnesota (Agriculture); and Rep. Ike Skelton of Missouri (Armed Services). But militantly pro-abortion Democrats will head committees that, arguably, are better positioned to stymie pro-life bills: Reps. Louise Slaughter and Charlie Rangel, both of New York, will lead the House Rules and the Ways and Means committees, respectively.

How pro-life will such Democratic leaders allow their pro-life colleagues to be? Alabama's Joe Turnham is tempering optimism with realism. "Will pro-life Democrats get everything we want? No," he said. "But will we etch ourselves into the consciousness of the Democratic leadership? I think we're in the process of doing that."

First test

Voters quickly found out how pro-life pro-life Democrats are. House speaker Nancy Pelosi pledged immediate action on stem-cell research-a bill that would provide new incentive for experimenting on, and in the process destroying, human embryos-and the House passed the measure 253-174 on Jan. 11.

Two Congresses ago, Mike Castle (R-Del.) and Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) introduced a bill to roll back some Bush restrictions on embryonic stem-cell research. Since then, the bill has been a pawn in intermittent rallies for and against embryonic life. After Korean scientists in 2005 announced an embryonic stem-cell breakthrough, the House passed the Castle bill, which would have loosened the lid on federal funding to create more stem-cell lines, but only those taken from leftover in vitro--fertilization embryos.

Then the lead scientist in the Korean research group admitted falsifying his research, and Congress' urgency to keep up with the Koreans cooled. The Castle bill lay untouched until the Senate passed it last summer. President Bush promptly vetoed the measure-the first veto of his presidency-and Congress could not muster the votes to override him. But once in power, Pelosi vowed to challenge that veto by bringing an identical bill, again sponsored by Castle and DeGette, to the floor during the first 100 hours of the 110th Congress.

It may be up to seven newly elected, pro-life Democrats to make or break the veto override, especially in the Senate. House members Jason Altmire and Chris Carney voted for the House version; Joe Donnelly, Brad Ellsworth, Heath Shuler, and Charlie Wilson voted against it. In the Senate, five Republicans voting against the summer version lost their seats in the election, putting the burden of upholding a second veto on Democrats Ben Nelson (the only Democrat to vote pro-life the first time around) and newly elected Bob Casey Jr.

Lynn Vincent

Lynn Vincent

Lynn is a senior writer for WORLD Magazine and the best-selling author of 10 non-fiction books.