Now that Conor Lamb has won a House seat in western Pennsylvania, the national press is already decamping for Illinois, where the next big midterm battle will be about reproductive rights. On Tuesday, Democratic primary voters in the Chicago suburbs will choose between Marie Newman, a progressive, pro-choice challenger, and Rep. Dan Lipinski, a Blue Dog, anti-abortion incumbent. It’s being billed as a battle for the soul of the Democratic Party and the party’s stance on reproductive rights.
But the real threat to the party’s position on reproductive rights doesn’t come from a handful of old-guard Democrats like Lipinski. It comes from a rising class of Democrats like Lamb, who soften their “personal” opposition to abortion with a promise to support existing law.
Lamb, a Catholic, has said he and other Catholics “believe that life begins at conception.” But, he clarified, “as a matter of separation of church and state, I think a woman has the right to choose under the law.” He is on the record opposing the 20-week abortion ban that recently passed the U.S. House, and says he doesn’t call himself pro-life because it’s a “political term … not one that you learn in Catholic school or anywhere else in the church.”
Lamb’s position is not unprecedented among Democratic men, particularly Catholics, in public life. Joe Biden and Sen. Tim Kaine both claim to support abortion rights in their capacity as politicians, even as they oppose the procedure in their personal lives. The position is intended to neutralize the issue by identifying, morally and personally, with anti-choice voters while maintaining their base of pro-choice Democrats, many of whom would never vote for a candidate who wants to curtail abortion access.
In a right-leaning district like Lamb’s, or a conservative-ish state like Kaine’s, conventional wisdom suggests that a more principled position on abortion would cost Republican votes, while the murky middle ground can edge a Democratic candidate to victory. In Lamb’s case, Republican analysts warned up until the bitter end that his tepid support for abortion rights could cost him, in a district that went to Donald Trump by a margin of 19 points.
But this line of thinking rests on two false premises. First, that anti-abortion voters care about a politician’s internal moral stance, and second, that a politician’s personal opposition to abortion will have no impact on how they govern.
Lamb’s personal opposition on the issue did little to help him with anti-choice advocacy groups, who understandably refused to claim him as their own. “Liberal Conor Lamb SUPPORTS PAINFUL LATE-TERM ABORTIONS,” said the Susan B. Anthony List in one call to action. The group’s president also co-wrote a piece in the National Review that accused Lamb of “a Faustian bargain on abortion,” and said his position “is not ‘separation of church and state’—it’s separation of politician and spine.”
Progressives who despise everything the Susan B. Anthony List stands for could easily agree with this characterization. A male lawmaker who says he opposes abortion in private but supports it for the public is taking a position that does not, for practical purposes, exist. Someone who’s pro-choice does not necessarily have to be willing to get an abortion herself; there are plenty of reproductive-justice advocates who would never make that choice for themselves. The operative word, though, is choice—they believe every woman should have the rights and access she needs to make her own reproductive decisions.
For male lawmakers like Lamb, a personal opposition to abortion exists only in the realm of theory. He will never have to decide whether to terminate a pregnancy. The only thing his hypothetical disapproval of the procedure does is signal to moderates that he rejects some elements of Democratic orthodoxy. The price he’s willing to pay for that advantage is steep.
By broadcasting his belief that, lawmaking aside, a fertilized egg is a human life, he’s essentially scolding women who’ve had abortions. “I believe you’ve killed someone, but I will fight for your right to do it!” may be the best progressives can hope for from those who are morally opposed to abortion, but it’s also a good way to alienate people on both sides of the issue.
In Texas, gubernatorial candidate Andrew White is currently facing a similar predicament. White will face fellow Democrat Lupe Valdez in a runoff for the party’s nomination on May 22. Valdez, a Latina lesbian, bested White, the son of a former Texas governor, by 16 points in the first round of voting, 43 percent to 27 percent. Still, White has all but made his slogan “boring enough to beat Gov. Greg Abbott,” and his anti-abortion views are a major component of that branding. Unlike Lamb, he goes as far as to call himself “pro-life,” though he says abortion “is a choice that [my wife and I] wouldn’t take away from somebody else,” making him technically pro-choice. White has pledged to veto bills that curtail reproductive rights. On his campaign website, he calls himself “similar” to Biden and Kaine: “I accept that life begins at conception. However, I will not impose my personal belief on other Texans.”
Democrats might argue that winning a seat in Congress, or recapturing a red-state governor’s mansion, is worth some minimal lip service to the anti-choice crowd. But a politician committed to the idea of abortion as a moral wrong is likely to stray from pro-choice principles when it suits him.
As governor of Virginia, Kaine’s seemingly benign position on abortion led to policies that degraded women’s rights. Kaine backed abstinence-only sex education and the state sale of “Choose Life” license plates that funnel money into deceptive crisis pregnancy centers. He expressed support for two of the state’s existing restrictions on abortion care: a law that requires minors to get a parent or judge’s permission before getting an abortion, and an informed consent law that was later expanded to require abortion-seeking patients to submit to unnecessary intravaginal ultrasounds. Kaine has also praised the Hyde Amendment, which prevents federal Medicaid dollars from going toward abortion care, effectively limiting abortion access to women wealthy enough to afford it.
As long as the Supreme Court protects a fundamental right to abortion, these incremental limits on access are where the battles will be fought. Will Lamb’s personal opposition, and his clear desire to seem like a Democratic dissident, lead him to support, as Kaine did, seemingly minor laws that nevertheless have devastating effects on women’s lives and serve as stepping stones to broader restrictions? Without a voting record, no one knows. So far, his commitment to being pro-choice has amounted to citing a “separation of church and state.” “To me, that means we defend the law as it is,” he said.
That’s not exactly a full-throated argument for women’s rights. A legislator whose support for abortion rights rests on a lukewarm invocation of stare decisis cannot be counted on to protect and advance reproductive health care. Not every member of Congress is going to be throwing out proactive reproductive-justice bills left and right. But to mount an effective defense of abortion rights, which Lamb claims to endorse, a good legislator will frame the issue in terms of rights, access, and moral imperative. “We defend the law as it is” is only as strong as the laws that exist. And Lamb will discover one funny thing about laws when he makes it to Congress: They change.
Still, for many Democrats, and even some pro-choice advocates, Lamb’s laissez-faire approach is better than the alternative. The former Obama speechwriter and popular podcaster Jon Favreau tweeted on Wednesday that Lamb is far more progressive than his critics on the left have made him out to be, suggesting Lamb campaigned “[f]or a woman’s right to choose”—a not entirely accurate characterization of the Lamb campaign. Even Planned Parenthood seems inclined to accept the trade-off. “What is dangerous, and where Planned Parenthood has drawn the line, is when politicians try to impose their beliefs on others and substitute their judgment for the judgment of women and their health care providers,” Kevin Griffis, vice president for communications at Planned Parenthood Action Fund, told Slate in a statement. Griffis said lawmakers like Lamb and Kaine “should be applauded for trusting women to make their own health care decisions.”
NARAL communications director Kaylie Hanson Long says her organization will try to educate and push Lamb on reproductive health issues as much as they do any other legislator. “We wish that every elected official and every politician were a true champion who is making this their number one issue,” she said. Though Lamb probably won’t become a standard-bearer for abortion rights—and, depending on how he votes, may not get a NARAL endorsement should he run again—Long says his promise to refrain from legislating his own moral code is a “promising sign.” “The decision to have an abortion is as personal as the decision not to,” she said. “Recognizing this—that’s a core part of being pro-choice.”
There is a good argument to be made for a reasonable amount of ideological diversity in campaign strategies within the Democratic Party. Lamb presumably knows what will resonate with the people of his district better than an outsider. But he also wasn’t nominated by local Democratic voters in a primary—he was tapped at a state party convention, making him a strategy-minded outsider’s choice, a cosmetically safe pick. If the lesson Democrats take away from Lamb’s win is that candidates in reddish districts should promote the idea that fertilized eggs are people, they will have wasted whatever good comes of Lamb’s 10 months in office. Polling data around Democrat Doug Jones’ improbable Senate win in Alabama suggested that few people, even in a radically anti-choice state like Alabama, are single-issue abortion voters who believe the procedure should be illegal in all or most cases. Jones never compromised his firm pro-choice stance, even as opponent Roy Moore literally nicknamed him “Abortion Jones” and Donald Trump tweeted that his “pro-abortion” views should disqualify him from the office. Jones won anyway, despite the fact that a full 71 percent of Alabama Republicans said they didn’t believe the women who’d accused Moore of child molestation.
Democrats may never know whether a similarly vigorous defender of women’s rights could have captured Lamb’s Pennsylvania district. But there’s reason to doubt that his equivocation made the difference in his win. Opponents of abortion have already shown they care much more about policy than they do about a candidate’s personal morality (see: Trump, Donald). Pro-choice voters, on the other hand, would have gone for Lamb no matter what—perhaps they would have been more enthusiastic if he’d come out stronger on behalf of reproductive health care. People whose abortion beliefs lie somewhere in the middle are unlikely to be swayed by either position.
All Lamb has done with his middle-of-the-roadism is open himself up to more avenues for criticism at the expense of the Democratic Party’s credibility on the issue, to say nothing of the hearts-and-minds fight for women’s lives. Republican leaders are already downplaying the significance of the likely Democratic victory by calling Lamb “pro-life.” Though Lamb refused to claim such a label on the campaign trail, the muddled interpretation of his abortion politics seems to be exactly what this renegade was aiming for.
Correction, March 15, 2018: This post originally referenced Conor Lamb’s wife. He is not married. It also stated that Tim Kaine, as Virginia governor, supported an informed consent law that included a mandatory intravaginal ultrasound. The ultrasound provision was added to the law after Kaine left office.