If Gov. John Bel Edwards follows through on his pledge to sign a new abortion ban into Louisiana law, he’ll be just the latest executive from a deep red state to endorse such strict antiabortion legislation this year. Except Edwards differs from his Republican predecessors in one fundamental way: He’s a Democrat.
Edwards, a Catholic Army veteran and first-term governor, is a high-profile member of a now-obscure class of politician: the “pro-life liberal.” As bills that ban abortions outright or after six weeks of pregnancy churn through statehouses across the country, his cohort has found itself the target of fierce criticism from fellow Democrats.
On a national level, the Democratic Party has sought a united front against the barrage of bills, and many view Edwards’s support for Louisiana’s “heartbeat” ban as the ultimate betrayal to their party’s cause — another broadside to abortion rights just as religious conservatives draw closer to upending Roe v. Wade.
Edwards, elected in 2015, has championed health care expansion and a minimum raise increase in a state that overwhelmingly voted for President Trump a year later. Yet his views on abortion have thrust him and other antiabortion Democrats into the national spotlight, unlikely intraparty combatants in a debate that has grown increasingly partisan.
But if you ask them, they’ll say the Democratic Party has left them behind, not the other way around.
“It’s all about abortion, they just don’t want anyone who opposes abortion in the party,” Kristen Day, executive director of the group Democrats for Life, said in an interview. “They’re kicking people out of the party instead of trying to bring people in.”
Stacey Abrams, the rising Democratic star who ran for Georgia governor last year, may have understated how many in her party feel about Edwards when she said at an event this week that she’s “a little annoyed with the governor of Louisiana. They’ve made some dodgy choices with abortion recently.”
That same day, Rep. Cheri Bustos, chairwoman of the House Democrats’ campaign arm, pulled out of a fundraiser for Rep. Daniel Lipinski, a fellow Illinois Democrat, over their split on the issue. Lipinski is one of the last remaining congressional Democrats who publicly opposes abortion rights and, in backing out, Bustos stressed her “100 percent pro-choice voting record.”
Another influential party leader, Rep. Pramila Jayapal (Wash.), said earlier this month that antiabortion Democrats should face strong primary challengers.
"I do think that there should be a set of core Democratic ideals that we all agree to,” she said. “You can’t say you’re a Democrat if you’re against immigrants, if you’re against abortion, if you’re against gay marriage and LGBTQ rights. I’m not sure what it means to be a Democrat if all of those things are true.”
Ahead of the 2016 presidential election, the Democratic Platform Committee appeared to agree, declaring for the first time the party’s support for the repeal of the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits federal funding for most abortions. Antiabortion Democrats have said the decision further alienated them.
If liberals who fight abortion rights aren’t welcome in the Democratic Party, they may face a kind of political exile, as most wouldn’t fit in with modern-day Republicans, either.
Day and other members of Democrats for Life have a saying: they’re “pro-life for the whole life” — unlike many in the GOP, Day said, who don’t support an expanded social safety net (a stance that has prompted some to call Republicans merely “pro-birth”).
As a method of launching a court battle that may one day overturn Roe, Day says she supports the abortion bans passed this year. But, as a legislating tactic, they’re lacking without accompanying measures like paid family leave, she said — policies she believes also look out for humans after they’re born.
In Louisiana, Day said Edwards has laid some of this foundation by pushing for Medicaid expansion and signing a bill that extends foster care from 18 to 21-year-olds. He’s advancing the sort of agenda that may benefit his party in 2020.
“The Democratic Party would be smart to look at him and say, ‘hey maybe these pro-life Democrats aren’t so bad,’” Day said. “If we want to gain more seats in the South, we want to have more people like him.”
The Louisiana legislature is set to vote on the six-week ban on Tuesday and, if signed into law — as Edwards has said repeatedly he would do and as his office reaffirmed to The Washington Post — it would join a host of other stringent antiabortion legislation already on the books in a state that has more bipartisan disdain for abortion than most places in the country.
In 2006, a Democratic state senator sponsored a “trigger law” that would automatically ban abortions, except when birth threatens a mother’s life, in the event that Roe is overturned. Gov. Kathleen Blanco, also a Democrat, signed it into law, ensuring Louisiana would be among the first states to outlaw abortion should the Supreme Court reverse course.
This year, it was also a Democrat, state Sen. John Milkovich, who sponsored the latest ban. The law will only go into effect if a federal court upholds a near identical ban in neighboring Mississippi, and on Friday a judge temporarily blocked it.
Edwards has said his opposition to abortion is deeply personal. A 2015 ad for his gubernatorial campaign features Edwards’s wife discussing a decision they had to make when she was 20 weeks pregnant. A doctor told them their daughter had spina bifida and encouraged Donna Edwards to get an abortion.
They refused, and their daughter Samantha got married in 2016.
“She’s living proof that John Bel Edwards lives his values every day.” Donna Edwards said in the ad.
He has evaded labels since he ran for the state legislature over a decade ago. Edwards added support for gun rights to his unconventional policy portfolio, and, when he won, he immediately became an ascendant figure on the local political scene. He ran for governor and outmatched David Vitter, a sitting Republican senator.
Edwards says his views come from his religion, and though they may ostracize him nationally, they’re pretty natural in his home state.
“That’s the way I was raised,” he said in an October 2018 episode of his monthly radio show. “That’s what my Catholic Christian faith requires. . . . I know that for many in the national party, on the national scene, that’s not a good fit. But I will tell you, here in Louisiana, I speak and meet with Democrats who are pro-life every single day.”
And there used to be more in Congress, too.
In the late 1970s, the years immediately following the Roe decision, the House of Representatives contained more than 120 Democrats who weren’t in favor of abortion rights — nearly half the caucus, according to data maintained by Democrats for Life.
But the following four decades saw that number decline dramatically. Today, hardly a handful remain, including a few from the Senate.
There’s Lipinski, whose seat liberal activists have targeted, and his fellow representative Collin C. Peterson (Minn.). Sens. Robert P. Casey Jr. (Pa.), Joe Donnelly (Ind.) and Joe Manchin III (W.Va.) round out the last of Democrats for Life’s endorsements who are still in national office.
Many of those who lost their seats were casualties of heightened partisanship. As the parties retreated further into their corners, Democrats became increasingly rare in the rural districts across the Midwest and the South that tended to produce antiabortion lawmakers — and those who survived often drifted left.
When Joe Biden was in his 30s, representing Delaware in the Senate, he said he believed Roe had gone “too far.” Soon after, he supported a constitutional amendment that would allow states to overturn the court’s decision on an individual basis. He called it, “the single most difficult vote I’ve cast as a U.S. senator.” An abortion rights group said it was “the most devastating attack yet on abortion rights.”
(Earlier this month, an activist asked Biden if he’d support abolishing the amendment. He said he would, adding, “It can’t stay.”)
During his 1992 presidential campaign, Bill Clinton was fond of telling his audience that abortions should be “safe, legal and rare.” Fifteen years later, Hillary Clinton would say the same thing on her own campaign stops.
But even the 2008 campaign was a long time ago, and experts say parties have become much more inflexible in the years since.
“In the past, you had much greater fluidity about these sorts of things,” said Sherry Colb, a professor at Cornell Law School. “It has become increasingly the case that some issues really dominate, and if you have a particular view, then that’s your party. Abortion has really become that kind of issue.”
Some Democrats — most prominently Sen. Tim Kaine (Va.) — have walked the line between personal and political views, saying they don’t like abortion, but they’re not about to impose that belief on the country.
“I’m opposed to abortion,” Kaine said in 2016. “I’ve got a personal feeling about abortion, but the right role for government is to let women make their own decisions.”
Today, 76 percent of Democrats say abortion should be legal in most or all cases, a figure up 12 points since 1995, according to Pew Research Center. Republican views, meanwhile, have shifted by almost the same margin — but in the opposite direction. Fifty-nine percent of Republicans now say abortion should be illegal in all or most cases, up 11 points from 1995, when the party was evenly divided on the issue.
“Nobody is listening to each other,” said Colb, who clerked for Supreme Court Justice Harry A. Blackmun, the author of the Roe decision. “Everybody’s hearing the issue through their own filter and they can’t imagine how anyone could see it differently.”
Abortion expert and doctor David A. Grimes writes in the preface to his book “Every Third Woman in America” that “abortion remains one of the most corrosive social issues in America.”
It has nearly driven the Democratic Party away from Day and her compatriots. And them away from it. Lately, she said, she has considered leaving but has thought better of it. If she gives up, she worries, then there will really be nobody left.