Pro-lifers are hopeful that the re-election of Democrat John Bel Edwards as Louisiana governor could turn the tide in a party whose leadership has grown increasingly more pro-abortion with each election cycle.
John Bel Edwards was re-elected as governor of Louisiana on Saturday by a 40,000-vote margin, winning more than 51 percent of the state’s vote.
A Catholic, Edwards first ran for the office in 2015 on an explicitly pro-life platform and won more than 56% of the vote. His campaign aired a TV ad revealing that Edwards and his wife, then 20 weeks pregnant with their daughter, had discovered she had spina bifida in utero. They couple faced down encouragement from a doctor to abort their child.
Edwards signed a “heartbeat” bill into law earlier in 2019, banning abortions in the state as soon as a baby’s heartbeat is detected in utero—as early as six weeks gestation--with no exceptions for rape or incest.
Josh Mercer, editor of The Loop at CatholicVote.org, told CNA that Edwards’ signing the heartbeat bill into law proved his pro-life credentials and “made the difference” in what was “a tight race.”
Katrina Jackson (D), an outgoing Louisiana state representative and incoming member of the state senate, said that the “heartbeat” bill landed on Edwards’ desk as the state legislature was departing to focus on the election. Edwards signed it promptly despite widespread opposition.
“What it said when he signed it that quickly without doubt, was that ‘I’m pro-life, and regardless of a campaign, regardless of pushback, regardless of what’s being said, I’m going to stand on that principle,’” Jackson said.
“And do I think it made a difference in this election? I believe it did, because what it said to people is ‘I am who I say I am.’”
Edwards has also tried to link other issues with to his pro-life stance, and make it part of a broader platform.
Earlier this year he cited his administration’s three straight years of record numbers of foster care adoptions. Edwards also oversaw an expansion of Medicaid access in his state for adults making less than 138% of the federal poverty line. In 2018, he appeared with Vatican officials at the Louisiana Summit on Modern Slavery and Human Trafficking, and in 2017 at the opening of a shelter for human trafficking victims in the state.
In December 2018, Edwards told America magazine that "the idea of not doing the Medicaid expansion, I just couldn't reconcile that, because I am pro-life. And the pro-life ethos has to mean more than just the abortion issue. [Abortion] is fundamental, and I understand how important it is, but it's got to go beyond that. The job isn't over when the baby's born if you've got poor people who need access to health care."
“He is just the real deal,” Kristen Day, executive director of Democrats for Life of America, told CNA of Edwards.
“We like to think he’s the future of the Democratic Party.”
On marriage, Edwards in 2015 said that he personally opposed same-sex marriages but that marriage licenses from the state should not be denied same-sex couples, as the Supreme Court had ruled that it was the law of the land.
He issued an executive order in 2016--later overturned in the courts--that established employment protections for state and state contractor employees, on the basis of many categories including sexual orientation and gender identity. The order included a religious exemption for churches and religious organizations.
Despite Edwards’ pro-life stance, questions remain of how a similar Democratic candidate might fare with leaders in the Democratic Party who may say there is no litmus test on abortion, but without the evidence to support such a claim.
At the national level, the Democratic Party has increasingly adopted an absolutist line on abortion in recent years to the alienation of millions of potential voters, say Day and Charlie Camosy, a theology professor at Fordham University.
Edwards’ victory could “jolt” Democratic Party leaders “out of what is just an untenable position” on abortion, Camosy told CNA, calling the current party platform “about as extreme as it could possibly get.”
In 2016, the DNC platform called for the repeal of the Hyde and the Helms Amendments—policies barring taxpayer funding of abortions. President Obama’s 2012 faith outreach campaign director Michael Wear even called the platform “extreme” on abortion.
In 2017, DNC chair Tom Perez stated that “Every Democrat, like every American, should support a woman’s right to make her own choices about her body and her health.” He subsequently met with Day after she requested a meeting on behalf of pro-life Democrats.
In the 2020 presidential election, Democratic frontrunner Joe Biden reversed his position on the Hyde Amendment this summer after backlash against his decades-long support for the policy. Other candidates have called for taxpayer funding of elective abortions, federal statutory protections of abortion, or have even said that the mother should be able to choose abortion up until the birth of the child.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said in September that “there’s room in our party” for pro-life candidates. However, the party’s most pro-life member in the House, Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-Ill.), has faced repeated primary challenges from an openly pro-abortion candidate and seen the chief of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) withdraw her participation in a fundraiser for him earlier this year after pressure from pro-abortion advocates.
The Democratic Attorneys General Association (DAGA) on Monday announced a litmus test on abortion for any party candidates running for a state attorney general office, saying that it “will only endorse candidates who support the right to access abortion.”
“What is it saying about people like John Bel, and like me, and Senator Casey, and all the elected pro-life Democrats across the country, the Democratic voters who are pro-life?” Day asked. “If there’s a litmus test, does it apply to us too? That they don’t want our votes?”
While, according to one study, nearly seven in ten of the party’s voters identify as pro-choice, many voters might still be turned off by more extreme stances on abortion, Day and Camosy said.
Gallup in 2019 reported that 45% of Democrats say abortion should be legal “under certain” conditions, and 14% say it should be illegal in all conditions.
To what extent those “certain” conditions of legality amount to, however, is unclear. Gallup reported that 58% of Americans nationwide would oppose a “heartbeat” bill, such as the one Edwards signed into law.
In 2018, Gallup reported that while 60% of Americans supported legal abortion in the first three months of pregnancy, nearly two-thirds of Americans wanted abortion to be illegal “in the second three months of pregnancy”; that support rose to 81% for illegality in the final three months of pregnancy.
And in advance of the 2020 presidential election, pro-life Democrats in swing states—and even in some heavily-Democratic states—are reportedly disgusted by the party’s extreme support for abortion.
“We have pro-life democrats in New York who are just so upset about the trajectory the party has taken,” Day said. Earlier in 2019, the state’s Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed a bill into law that could allow for many late-term abortions even up until the birth of the child.
Even before the law was enacted, New York had one of the highest rates of abortion in the country, Day noted. In fact, according to the Guttmacher Institute, the state had the highest rate of abortions per 1,000 women age 15 to 44, in 2014, of all 50 states and the District of Columbia.
“What has it done to address that?” Day asked.
A recent New York Times poll showed President Trump level with or beating Democratic frontrunners Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren in key swing states such as Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Florida, although he was slightly behind Joe Biden in most of those states. Abortion “has got to be one of the major reasons why,” Camosy said.
In Wisconsin, Camosy said, he knew “without any hesitation at all that there’s a ton of religiously-minded Democrats who are Democrats mostly because they share their views on economics or about a social safety net or about supporting unions in particular, who would identify as pro-life or at least identify as abortion skeptical.”
These voters “in fact are totally turned off by what is in the Democratic Party’s platform.”
Yet for now, some pro-life voters are wary of a party whose leadership has supported abortion access at the top and whose presidential candidates support taxpayer-funded abortions and at least some late-term abortions.
“Catholics long for the day when both parties nationwide try to outdo each other on the pro-life issue, but that day is sadly not here yet,” Mercer said.