They defeated bills expanding abortion rights in New Mexico and Rhode Island, backed tough restrictions on abortion access, and voted to pass infanticide bills in Montana and North Carolina. And they’re not Republicans.
In one of the biggest surprises of the 2019 legislative session, dozens of Democratic state legislators have defied their party on abortion, emerging as a decisive force on pivotal votes in what may signal a fraying of the Democratic consensus on a signature issue.
Perhaps the biggest moment came when Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, announced Wednesday that he would sign a fetal-heartbeat bill after it passed the House by a vote of 79-23. He wasn’t alone: The bill received 17 Democratic votes in the House and seven in the Senate.
“I am proud to stand with the people of Louisiana in defense of the unborn and against the abortion mills that are waging war on the next generation,” said Democratic state Sen. John Milkovich, who sponsored SB 184, in a statement.
The announcement capped what has been a disastrous legislative session for the pro-choice movement, which began with high hopes of erecting a bulwark against the Supreme Court’s 5-4 conservative majority — and wound up deluged by pro-life legislation, some of it passed with Democratic support.
Not even the most optimistic pro-lifers expect the Democratic Party to start holding protests outside Planned Parenthood any time soon, but the session does show that there may be more wiggle room than previously believed within the stoutly pro-choice party.
One reason: The abortion-rights movement, led by Planned Parenthood and NARAL Pro-Choice America, clearly overestimated how far some liberal lawmakers were willing to go to “codify Roe.”
In Rhode Island and New Mexico, Democratic legislators killed measures billed as enshrining the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision into law, arguing that the bills overreached by removing widely accepted safeguards and clearing the way for abortion until birth.
“I cannot support post-viability abortions that are based on undefined ‘health’ reasons and would permit very late term, up to date of birth, abortions. It simply goes too far,” said Rhode Island state Sen. Stephen Archambault, one of four Democrats who defeated a no-limits abortion bill earlier this month.
Kristen Day, executive director of Democrats for Life of America, said such legislation was viewed as too extreme: “It’s not ‘codify Roe.’ It’s going further than Roe.”
But Democratic opposition to late-term and no-limits bills tells only half the story. In red states like Georgia and Kentucky, some Democrats joined Republicans to pass fetal-heartbeat bills and other abortion restrictions aimed at challenging Roe.
“In every single state that has passed a fetal-heartbeat bill, they’ve done it with Democratic support,” said Ms. Day, who said her organization has seen an uptick in fundraising and membership. “it’s very encouraging.”
Democrats also broke ranks to support infanticide bills in Montana and North Carolina, both of which were vetoed by Democratic governors. In North Carolina, Democratic state Sen. Don Davis joined Republicans to cast the decisive vote in April to override Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto.
While Republicans have their own abortion renegades, they failed for the most part to play a prominent role in this year’s legislative session, which saw a dozen red states pass tough restrictions on abortion access aimed at challenging Roe.
The exception would be Vermont Gov. Phil Scott, a pro-choice Republican who has indicated that he plans to allow a no-limits abortion law passed by the Democratic legislature to become law without his signature.
Paying the price
The Democratic defections have not gone unnoticed by pro-choice activists, who have in some cases vowed to make the defectors pay.
In North Carolina, Mr. Davis has been targeted by the advocacy group NC Strong, which called him out as a “disloyal Democrat” and vowed to “ensure accountability for Democrats who fail to stand strong with Governor Cooper and their party.”
“After the extreme right-wing supermajorities of both chambers were broken last fall, progressives expect Democrats to realize that voters need them to stand up for North Carolina values and support Governor Cooper,” said NC Strong executive director Daniel Gilligan. “Instead, these Disloyal Democrats are using the new balance of power to work with Republicans for their own personal gain.”
After Rhode Island Democrats voted down the Reproductive Health Care Act, Anne Skinner, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Votes Rhode Island, blasted the Democratic Senate leadership for failing to bring H. 5125A directly to the floor.
“Today, the Democratic leadership of the Rhode Island Senate failed women and failed their constituents,” Ms. Skinner said in a May 14 statement. “They sided with the blatant lies of President Trump and allowed the Reproductive Health Care Act to be defeated in the Senate Judiciary Committee.”
Taking on the defectors could be tricky, given that many of the Democrats breaking with the party on abortion are black or Hispanic. Of the six Democrats who voted for the North Carolina infanticide bill, five were black — including Mr. Davis — and one was Native American.
“In reality, it’s African-American and Hispanic Democrats who are breaking with the party the most,” Ms. Day said.
Abortion supporters argue that pro-life Democrats are on the wrong side of the voters. A Reuters/Ipsos poll released last week showed 58 percent of adults want to keep abortion legal in all or most cases, although those polled were split on whether it should be legal after a fetal heartbeat is detected.
On the other side, a February poll by You.gov for Americans United for Life found that two-thirds of pro-choice voters oppose third-trimester abortions. The survey was taken shortly after New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed a bill clearing the way for abortion until birth.
Since the New York bill was approved, only one state — Vermont — has passed sweeping pro-choice legislation.
Mr. Edwards was hit with a torrent of criticism on the left for his decision to sign the fetal-heartbeat bill, but it’s doubtful he or other Louisiana Democrats will face a reckoning at the ballot box, given the state’s reputation as one of the most pro-life in the nation.
In a Wednesday statement, he reminded voters that he has never made any secret of his views on abortion, running for his first term in 2015 as “a pro-life candidate after serving as a pro-life legislator for eight years.”
“I know there are many who feel just as strongly as I do on abortion and disagree with me — and I respect their opinions,” Mr. Edwards said.
The only Democratic governor in the South, Mr. Edwards would be the only Democrat to sign a fetal-heartbeat bill. He was endorsed in March by the Democratic State Central Committee in his bid for reelection in November.
His pro-life views may well have helped his political career. His campaign released a powerful ad in 2015 about how he and his wife decided against an abortion after discovering their unborn child had spina bifida.
Their daughter Samantha has since earned a master’s degree and works as a school counselor.
“He’s a hero for not backing down,” Ms. Day said. Has he inspired other Democrats? “I sure hope so. He’s inspired me,” she said.