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 RH Reality Check. “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 Times’ FiveThirtyEight 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.
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 RH Reality Check—using our newly released RHRC 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 RH Reality Check 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 RH Reality Check. “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 RH Reality Check 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.”