Analysis Abortion

Anti-Choice Advocates Seize on West Virginia Democrats’ Support of 20-Week Abortion Ban

Sofia Resnick

When West Virginia’s legislature voted to ban abortion after 20 weeks’ gestation in March, West Virginia Democrats overwhelmingly backed the ban, deliberately defying the national party’s support of abortion rights.

When West Virginia’s legislature voted to ban abortion after 20 weeks’ gestation in March, West Virginia Democrats overwhelmingly backed the ban. Not only did 33 out of 53 Democratic delegates and 19 out of 24 Democratic senators vote for the measure, but all 11 sponsors of the original house bill were Democrats.

That move deliberately defied the national party’s support of abortion rights.

“We’re not on the same step with the national party platform,” Rep. David G. Perry (D-Oak Hill), the bill’s primary sponsor, told Rewire. “It doesn’t reflect the majority of West Virginians.”

To be sure, West Virginia Democrats—the dominant party in state government and among registered voters—lean conservative on a range of issues, including energy, environmental, and social issues. Writing at the New York TimesFiveThirtyEight blog leading up to the 2012 presidential election, Micah Cohen noted that in recent years (really since 2000), “[j]ust like Georgia … West Virginia has gone from solid blue to solid red on presidential electoral maps. But unlike Georgia, West Virginia still elects Democrats in statewide races.” Cohen also mentioned West Virginian politicians’ pride in their independence from the national Democratic Party.

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Still, the West Virginia Democrats’ wide support of a 20-week abortion ban sent ripples of delight throughout the anti-choice establishment.

West Virginia’s governor last month vetoed the ban, but not before the state Democrats’ decision to vote in favor of it led the Susan B. Anthony List—a leading anti-choice organization—to claim the Democrats’ move was evidence that a 20-week abortion ban is “modest legislation.”

An analysis by Rewire—using our newly released Rewire Data tool—shows that West Virginia’s Democrats were not alone. A handful of Democratic lawmakers in at least five states have recently broken with the national party and voted against reproductive rights. The anti-choice votes—which include support for some of the most extreme anti-choice bills in the nation—are noteworthy because of the traditionally strong relationships between women’s groups and the Democratic Party.

Erika West, political director of NARAL Pro-Choice America, a nonpartisan reproductive rights advocacy group in Washington, D.C., told Rewire that voters in conservative, mostly anti-choice districts have not been engaged enough by advocates on reproductive rights issues, and thus Democrats in these districts vote anti-choice without much political risk.

“I think unfortunately there are a lot of districts and states in this country where we haven’t proactively—and by we, I mean anybody who’s interested in advancing reproductive freedom for women and families, whether that’s the Democratic Party, which says that they do, or organizations like us—done really deep voter engagement on the issue in a long time and what is at stake,” West said.

The national Democratic Party platform from 2012 contains strong statements in favor of reproductive rights. It says that the party “strongly and unequivocally supports Roe v. Wade and a woman’s right to make decisions regarding her pregnancy, including a safe and legal abortion, regardless of ability to pay” and “oppose[s] any and all efforts to weaken or undermine that right.”

The West Virginia Democrats’ support for the 20-week ban defied not only the national party’s stance on abortion rights, but their own.

The Mountain State’s Democratic Party platform says:

The Democratic Party of West Virginia is concerned about the attacks on women’s reproductive health and health services in the US and West Virginia. Although we have made significant gains in women’s health in West Virginia, much remains to be done to improve quality of care and access to comprehensive health services, including family planning.

Asked where West Virginian voters who support abortion rights are supposed to turn, Perry—who said he plans to re-introduce the 20-week abortion ban next term—simply emphasized that they are in the minority in his state.

“I’d say it’s about 10 percent,” he said, estimating the percentage of voters whom he believes support abortion rights in West Virginia, for which he provided no evidence.

Margaret Chapman Pomponio—executive director of WV Free, a nonpartisan nonprofit advocates for reproductive rights in West Virginia—said Perry’s 10 percent estimate is laughable.

“Unfortunately, there’s a perception that West Virginians are anti-choice,” Pomponio told Rewire. “That’s actually not the case at all when you talk to West Virginians about the individual circumstances a woman is facing when she needs abortion care.”

Indeed, in a poll conducted by Public Policy Polling on behalf of Planned Parenthood Health Systems (a Planned Parenthood affiliate, with offices and health centers in North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia) released in early March, 51 to 62 percent of voters surveyed across three West Virginia Senate districts said abortion should be legal at 20 weeks’ gestation in the event that severe fetal abnormalities are predicted. And 47 to 62 percent of voters in these districts said abortion should generally be legal in all or most cases. (The public poll and accompanying memo were provided to Rewire by Planned Parenthood Health Systems.)

In her 12 years of lobbying on reproductive justice issues in West Virginia, Pomponio said she has seen the Democratic leadership consistently embracing abortion rights in its party platform but trying to skirt away from the issue in the legislature.

“It’s really the only issue that will bring out the worst in people under the capitol dome,” she said.

Meanwhile, the Susan B. Anthony List seized on West Virginia’s Democratic support to try to push for bipartisan backing of the federal 20-week abortion ban—which passed the U.S. House of Representatives last year but has stalled in the Senate—by targeting U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV). Earlier this month, the group announced a $20,000 radio ad buy to encourage Manchin “to become the first Democratic senator to cosponsor the federal Pain Capable Unborn Child Act.”

“Momentum is growing for this popular measure to move forward in Washington as well, where Senate Democrats should take a cue from their West Virginia counterparts,” said Susan B. Anthony List President Marjorie Dannenfelser in a press release published after West Virginia’s legislature passed the ban last month. “We encourage Senator Joe Manchin to embrace his self-avowed pro-life position and become the first Democratic cosponsor of the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act.”

But West Virginia is not the only state where Democrats are flouting their party’s official policy.

In Texas in 2013, the openly anti-choice Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr. (D-Brownsville) authored one and co-authored three anti-abortion measures (he sponsored multiple versions of the same bills in different special sessions).

Lucio authored SB 17, which, had it passed, would have required a woman to complete a three-hour adoption course at least 24 hours before she could have an abortion, excepting a pregnant woman with a life-threatening medical condition or a minor whose pregnancy was the result of sexual assault or incest.

And Lucio co-authored:

  • SB 1, an omnibus abortion bill that included a 20-week abortion ban, admitting privileges and ambulatory surgical center requirements, and restrictions on medication abortions. SB 1 was the senate companion bill of HB 2, which was passed and signed into law during the second special legislative session called by Gov. Rick Perry in July 2013. Challenged portions of the law were recently upheld by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.

  • SB 24, which would have required abortion clinics to comply with the minimum standards for an ambulatory surgical center. The bill failed, but its provisions are included in the omnibus abortion bill that was signed into law last summer.

  • SB 521, which would have prevented abortion providers such as Planned Parenthood from giving sex education or family planning instruction at public schools.

In Florida last year, openly anti-choice Rep. Daphne D. Campbell (D-Miami Shores) co-sponsored HB 845, or the “Florida Prenatal Nondiscrimination Act,” which, had it passed, would have banned abortions sought because of a child’s anticipated sex or race. The law would have required abortion providers to sign an affidavit attesting that they are not performing the abortion because of the fetus’ sex or race.

Campbell and Rep. Joe Saunders (D-Orlando) co-sponsored HB 1129, the “Florida Infants Born Alive Bill,” which stipulates that infants born alive after an attempted abortion are “entitled to the same rights, powers, and privileges as any other child born alive in the course of natural birth.” The bill requires that health-care practitioners who have knowledge of violations to this law report the violations to the state health department.

In Michigan last year, Reps. Terry L. Brown (D-Pigeon) and Charles M. Brunner (D-Bay City)—who claims to have been “Right to Life from the start”—co-sponsored HB 4187, which would have amended Michigan’s informed consent statute to require a physician to perform an ultrasound at least two hours prior to an abortion and offer the patient an opportunity to see the sonogram and hear the fetal heartbeat.

In Pennsylvania last year, Sen. Richard A. Kasunic (D-Dunbar), who recently announced his plans to retire from the state senate, co-sponsored SB 275, which, had it passed, would have prohibited state municipalities from using any public money to pay for abortion, with the limited exceptions of reported rape and incest and life-endangerment of the mother.

Rep. Thomas R. Caltagirone (D-Reading) co-sponsored HB 818, signed into law last summer, which prohibits insurance providers from offering abortion coverage in the state’s health exchange set up under the Affordable Care Act, with the exception of reported rape and incest and life-endangerment of the mother.

But NARAL’s Erika West said the vast majority of Democrats around the country are still advocates for reproductive rights, despite the anti-choice votes of a small number of lawmakers.

Coming into this election season, she said she is heartened to see candidates embracing their pro-choice views in campaigns, a strategy she said was proven effective by Terry McAuliffe’s gubernatorial win in Virginia last November.

“What we’re seeing is a lot more Democratic candidates leaning in,” West said, referring to the issue of abortion rights and reproductive freedom. “We wish we had some Republican folks as well doing the same, but more Democratic candidates are leaning into the issue and using it effectively as an attack point against anti-choice opponents.”

Check out Rewire Data for more information on anti-abortion laws introduced in the last legislative cycle, including 20-week abortion bans.

Analysis Politics

Anti-Choice Democrats Employ ‘Dangerous,’ Contradictory Strategies

Ally Boguhn & Christine Grimaldi

Democrats for Life of America leaders, politicians, and rank-and-file supporters often contradict each other, and sometimes themselves, exposing a lack of coherent strategy at a time when the Democratic Party's platform is newly committed to increasing abortion access for all.

The national organization for anti-choice Democrats last month brought a litany of arguments against abortion to the party’s convention. As a few dozen supporters gathered for an event honoring anti-choice Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards (D), the group ran into a consistent problem.

Democrats for Life of America (DFLA) leaders, politicians, and rank-and-file supporters often contradicted each other, and sometimes themselves, exposing a lack of coherent strategy at a time when the Democratic Party’s platform is newly committed to increasing access to abortion care for all.

DFLA leaders and politicians attempted to distance themselves from the traditionally Republican anti-choice movement, but repeatedly invoked conservative falsehoods and medically unsupported science to make their arguments against abortion. One state-level lawmaker said she routinely sought guidance from the National Right to Life, while another claimed the Republican-allied group left anti-choice Democrats in his state to fend for themselves.

Over the course of multiple interviews, Rewire discovered that while the organization demanded that Democrats “open the big tent” for anti-choice party members in order to win political office, especially in the South, it lacked a coordinated strategy for making that happen and accomplishing its policy goals.

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Take, for example, 20-week abortion bans, which the organization’s website lists as a key legislative issue. When asked about why the group backed cutting off abortion care at that point in a pregnancy, DFLA Executive Director Kristen Day admitted that she didn’t “know what the rationale was.”

Janet Robert, the president of the group’s executive board, was considerably more forthcoming.

“Well, the group of pro-life people who came up with the 20-week ban felt that at 20 weeks, it’s pretty well established that a child can feel pain,” Robert claimed during an interview with Rewire. Pointing to the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Roe v. Wade, which protected the right to legal abortion care before the point of fetal viability, Rogers suggested that “more and more we’re seeing that children, prenatal children, are viable around 20 to 22 weeks” of pregnancy.

Medical consensus, however, has found it “unlikely” that a fetus can feel pain until the third trimester, which begins around the 28th week of pregnancy. The doctors who testify otherwise in an effort to push through abortion restrictions are often discredited anti-choice activists. A 20-week fetus is “in no way shape or form” viable, according to Dr. Hal Lawrence, executive vice president of the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

When asked about scientific findings that fetuses do not feel pain at 20 weeks of pregnancy, Robert steadfastly claimed that “medical scientists do not agree on that issue.”

“There is clearly disagreement, and unfortunately, science has been manipulated by a lot of people to say one thing or another,” she continued.

While Robert parroted the very same medically unsupported fetal pain and viability lines often pushed by Republicans and anti-choice activists, she seemingly acknowledged that such restrictions were a way to work around the Supreme Court’s decision to make abortion legal.

“Now other legislatures are looking at 24 weeks—anything to get past the Supreme Court cut-off—because everybody know’s it’s a child … it’s all an arbitrary line,” she said, adding that “people use different rationales just to get around the stupid Supreme Court decision.”

Charles C. Camosy, a member of DFLA’s board, wrote in a May op-ed for the LA Times that a federal 20-week ban was “common-sense legislation.” Camosy encouraged Democratic lawmakers to help pass the abortion ban as “a carrot to get moderate Republicans on board” with paid family leave policies.

Robert also relied upon conservative talking points about fake clinics, also known as crisis pregnancy centers, which routinely lie to patients to persuade them not to have an abortion. Robert said DFLA doesn’t often interact with women facing unplanned pregnancies, but the group nonetheless views such organizations as “absolutely fabulous [be]cause they help the women.”

Those who say such fake clinics provide patients with misinformation and falsehoods about abortion care are relying on “propaganda by Planned Parenthood,” Robert claimed, adding that the reproductive health-care provider simply doesn’t want patients seeking care at fake clinics and wants to take away those clinics’ funding.

Politicians echoed similar themes at DFLA’s convention event. Edwards’ award acceptance speech revealed his approach to governing, which, to date, includes support for restrictive abortion laws that disproportionately hurt people with low incomes, even as he has expanded Medicaid in Louisiana.

Also present at the event was Louisiana state Rep. Katrina Jackson (D), responsible for a restrictive admitting privileges law that former Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) signed into law in 2014. Jackson readily admitted to Rewire that she takes her legislative cues from the National Right to Life. She also name-checked Dorinda Bordlee, senior counsel of the Bioethics Defense Fund, an allied organization of the Alliance Defending Freedom.

“They don’t just draft bills for me,” Jackson told Rewire in an interview. “What we do is sit down and talk before every session and see what the pressing issues are in the area of supporting life.”

Despite what Jackson described as a commitment to the constitutionality of her laws, the Supreme Court in March blocked admitting privileges from taking effect in Louisiana. Louisiana’s law is also nearly identical to the Texas version that the Court struck down in June’s Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt decision.

Jackson did not acknowledge the setback, speaking instead about how such measures protect the health of pregnant people and fetuses. She did not mention any legal strategy—only that she’s “very prayerful” that admitting privileges will remain law in her state.

Jackson said her “rewarding” work with National Right to Life encompasses issues beyond abortion care—in her words, “how you’re going to care for the baby from the time you choose life.”

She claimed she’s not the only Democrat to seek out the group’s guidance.

“I have a lot of Democratic colleagues in my state, in other states, who work closely with [National] Right to Life,” Jackson said. “I think the common misconception is, you see a lot of party leaders saying they’re pro-abortion, pro-choice, and you just generally assume that a lot of the state legislators are. And that’s not true. An overwhelming majority of the Democrat state legislators in our state and others are pro-life. But, we say it like this: We care about them from the womb to the tomb.”

The relationship between anti-choice Democrats and anti-choice groups couldn’t be more different in South Dakota, said state house Rep. Ray Ring (D), a Hillary Clinton supporter at DFLA’s convention event.

Ring said South Dakota is home to a “small, not terribly active” chapter of DFLA. The “very Republican, very conservative” South Dakota Right to Life drives most of the state’s anti-choice activity and doesn’t collaborate with anti-choice Democrats in the legislature, regardless of their voting records on abortion.

Democrats hold a dozen of the 70 seats in South Dakota’s house and eight of the 35 in the state senate. Five of the Democratic legislators had a mixed record on choice and ten had a pro-choice record in the most recent legislative session, according to NARAL Pro-Choice South Dakota Executive Director Samantha Spawn.

As a result, Ring and other anti-choice Democrats devote more of their legislative efforts toward policies such as Medicaid expansion, which they believe will reduce the number of pregnant people who seek abortion care. Ring acknowledged that restrictions on the procedure, such as a 20-week ban, “at best, make a very marginal difference”—a far cry not only from Republicans’ anti-choice playbook, but also DFLA’s position.

Ring and other anti-choice Democrats nevertheless tend to vote for Republican-sponsored abortion restrictions, falling in line with DFLA’s best practices. The group’s report, which it released at the event, implied that Democratic losses since 2008 are somehow tied to their party’s support for abortion rights, even though the turnover in state legislatures and the U.S. Congress can be attributed to a variety of factors, including gerrymandering to favor GOP victories.

Anecdotal evidence provides measured support for the inference.

Republican-leaning anti-choice groups targeted one of their own—Rep. Renee Ellmers (R-NC)—in her June primary for merely expressing concern that a congressional 20-week abortion ban would have required rape victims to formally report their assaults to the police in order to receive exemptions. Ellmers eventually voted last year for the U.S. House of Representatives’ “disgustingly cruel” ban, similarly onerous rape and incest exceptions included.

If anti-choice groups could prevail against such a consistent opponent of abortion rights, they could easily do the same against even vocal “Democrats for Life.”

Former Rep. Kathy Dalhkemper (D-PA) contends that’s what happened to her and other anti-choice Democrats in the 2010 midterm elections, which resulted in Republicans wresting control of the House.

“I believe that pro-life Democrats are the biggest threat to the Republicans, and that’s why we were targeted—and I’ll say harshly targeted—in 2010,” Dahlkemper said in an interview.

She alleged that anti-choice groups, often funded by Republicans, attacked her for supporting the Affordable Care Act. A 2010 Politico story describes how the Susan B. Anthony List funneled millions of dollars into equating the vote with support for abortion access, even though President Obama signed an executive order in the vein of the Hyde Amendment’s prohibition on federal funds for abortion care.

Dalhkemper advocated for perhaps the clearest strategy to counter the narrative that anti-choice Democrats somehow aren’t really opposed to abortion.

“What we need is support from our party at large, and we also need to band together, and we also need to continue to talk about that consistent life message that I think the vast majority of us believe in,” she said.

Self-described pro-choice Georgia House Minority Leader Rep. Stacey Abrams (D) rejected the narratives spun by DFLA to supporters. In an interview with Rewire at the convention, Abrams called the organization’s claim that Democrats should work to elect anti-choice politicians from within their ranks in order to win in places like the South a “dangerous” strategy that assumes “that the South is the same static place it was 50 or 100 years ago.”

“I think what they’re reacting to is … a very strong religious current that runs throughout the South,” that pushes people to discuss their values when it comes to abortion, Abrams said. “But we are capable of complexity. And that’s the problem I have. [Its strategy] assumes and reduces Democrats to a single issue, but more importantly, it reduces the decision to one that is a binary decision—yes or no.”

That strategy also doesn’t take into account the intersectional identities of Southern voters and instead only focuses on appealing to the sensibilities of white men, noted Abrams.

“We are only successful when we acknowledge that I can be a Black woman who may be raised religiously pro-life but believe that other women have the right to make a choice,” she continued. “And the extent to which we think about ourselves only in terms of white men and trying to convince that very and increasingly narrow population to be our saviors in elections, that’s when we face the likelihood of being obsolete.”

Understanding that nuances exist among Southern voters—even those who are opposed to abortion personally—is instead the key to reaching them, Abrams said.

“Most of the women and most of the voters, we are used to having complex conversations about what happens,” she said. “And I do believe that it is both reductive and it’s self-defeating for us to say that you can only win if you’re a pro-life Democrat.”

To Abrams, being pro-choice means allowing people to “decide their path.”

“The use of reproductive choice is endemic to how we as women can be involved in society: how we can go to work, how we can raise families, make choices about who we are. And so while I am sympathetic to the concern that you have to … cut against the national narrative, being pro-choice means exactly that,” Abrams continued. “If their path is pro-life, fine. If their path is to decide to make other choices, to have an abortion, they can do so.”

“I’m a pro-choice woman who has strongly embraced the conversation and the option for women to choose whatever they want to choose,” Abrams said. “That is the best and, I think, most profound path we can take as legislators and as elected officials.”

News Politics

NARAL Leader Campaigns to Oust Anti-Choice Colorado Congressman

Jason Salzman

NARAL Pro-Choice America officials have stepped up support for pro-choice Democrat Morgan Carroll in her competitive race against U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman (R-CO), who’s voted repeatedly to defund Planned Parenthood.

Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, called voters this week on behalf of pro-choice Colorado state Sen. Morgan Carroll (D-Aurora), who’s running against anti-choice U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Aurora).

Hogue stopped by Carroll’s campaign office in a Denver suburb and called voters, in part, she told Rewire, because NARAL wants to “send a signal to the anti-choice legislators who are hiding from their anti-choice records when they come home at election time.”

Hogue pointed to Coffman’s repeated votes to defund Planned Parenthood—efforts based on discredited videos released by an anti-choice front group known as the Center for Medical Progress. Coffman used a Planned Parenthood Action Fund logo in a political advertisement, despite having voted repeatedly to defund the organization, as first reported by Rewire. He voted again to defund Planned Parenthood after the ad aired.

“Mike Coffman has worked to defund women’s health centers and even fought to redefine rape,” Carroll said in a statement during Hogue’s visit. “Millions of women across this country simply can’t afford to have representatives like Mike Coffman in Congress.

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Coffman once co-sponsored a measure that redefined “a ban on federal funding for abortions to exempt only ‘forcible rape.'” Coffman’s campaign did not return a call seeking comment.

Coffman’s district, concentrated in the suburbs east of Denver, is perennially ranked as home to some of the nation’s most competitive political races. Coffman was first elected in 2008, two years before district boundaries were re-drawn, making for a much closer elections.

The Republican, a former U.S. Marine who has become known as a tough campaigner, surprised analysts by his ten-point margin of victory in 2014, after a narrow 2 percent margin in 2012.

Asked for a reaction to her phone calls on Carroll’s behalf, Hogue said she was encouraged by the candidate’s name recognition but dismayed by the apathy she encountered, though she noted that the election season is young.

“Particularly if we continue to hear that Trump is down by 15 points in polls, apathy is going to be a real issue in this election,” Hogue said. “People need to be made to feel that their vote matters. It matters at the top of the ticket. It certainly matters when you get down to the folks who are going to stay in the state house here [in Colorado] or go to D.C. and do the day-to-day work of moving this agenda forward. People need to hear that their participation has value.”

“We hope our investment in the field effort here puts Morgan Carroll a little bit closer to victory, but also builds power for NARAL members and the issue long term,” Hogue said. “Our job doesn’t end on Election Day. It begins on Election Day.”

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