‘Pro-life Democrat’ Casey Opens Up On Abortion
U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, one of the few self-described pro-life Democrats remaining in Congress, does not support the strategy behind the series of increasingly restrictive state abortion laws intended to spark a showdown over abortion in the nation’s top court.
The Pennsylvania lawmaker opposes the 1973 Roe vs. Wade ruling creating a constitutional protection for ending a pregnancy. But Casey told The Morning Call that he views the near-total abortion ban passed recently in Alabama as going too far.
That state law, which blocks abortions except in cases of serious health risk to the woman, doesn’t include two other common exceptions Casey supports: allowing abortions in cases of rape or incest.
But beyond the specific provisions of that law, Casey also made it clear he opposes the courts-based approach that anti-abortion groups hope will lead to reversing the Roe ruling and ending abortions.
The better path to preventing abortions, Casey says, is to increase government and private support for women and children before, during and after pregnancy.
“Most Republicans have clearly committed to this ... litigation strategy, but I don’t think they’re getting much of a result for it,” he said during a half-hour interview Thursday in his Capitol Hill office. “The policies that have reduced abortion the most have been wider access to health care, wider access to contraception, programs that support families.”
Casey holds a unique position as the two political parties become increasingly polarized and debate heats up over abortion. With few outliers, Democrats have embraced abortion rights and Republicans have pushed to restrict or ban the procedure.
During his tenure in public office, Casey has supported the Hyde amendment banning federal funding for abortions, voted to prevent abortions after the 20th week of pregnancy, and sided with Republicans on a recent bill requiring medical care for an infant in the case of a failed abortion.
But he also has voted to protect funding for Planned Parenthood, and has supported access to contraception, saying access to family planning services mean fewer unwanted pregnancies and fewer abortions. A legislative scorecard compiled by Planned Parenthood Action Fund shows 70 percent of his votes on key bills have aligned with the abortion-rights group’s positions.
“I’ve had trouble with both sides (of the abortion debate). Over time, I’ve voted for restrictions. But I just don’t believe litigating this in the Senate or in a legislature right now is ...” Casey said, trailing off, then adding: “I think in order to reduce the number of abortions and to have a consensus in the country, you’ve got to be working on these issues that provide a real choice. Right now, there are a lot of women who face a crisis pregnancy, and especially because of economics, choose abortion because they don’t think they have another choice.”
Casey Sr.’s role
His views on abortion are often linked to those of his father — former Gov. Robert P. Casey Sr., perhaps best known nationally for a staunch anti-abortion position that put him at odds with Democratic Party leaders during the 1992 election, including soon-to-be President Bill Clinton.
As governor in 1989, Casey Sr. signed into law a bill that among other provisions established a 24-hour waiting period before an abortion and required married women to notify their husbands. The Republican architect of the law said at the time it could be used as a vehicle for the Supreme Court to further restrict abortion or overturn Roe, though Casey Sr. said the bill was not intended as a “so-called test case.”
The resulting legal case, Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey, ended in a 5-to-4 U.S. Supreme Court ruling upholding Roe. But the ruling also allowed state restrictions if the fetus was viable and the laws did not place an “undue burden” on women.
That legal precedent will be at the forefront if the new restrictions in states like Alabama, Georgia, Ohio and Missouri make it to the Supreme Court. The legal fight over the Alabama law began Friday, when the American Civil Liberties Union and Planned Parenthood filed suit on behalf of abortion providers.
Casey didn’t offer any predictions for what would happen at the top court, where the recent appointments of conservative justices give abortion opponents a stronger shot at winning a landmark ruling.
But asked if the goal of the anti-abortion movement should be getting the Supreme Court to chip away at or overturn Roe, Casey replied: “That has been the strategy of most Republicans, at the state level and the federal level, to try to use that pathway. I think the better pathway is to help the mom, or the pregnant woman who might become a mom and the child.”
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That’s an approach that differs from other Democrats who oppose abortion rights. Kristen Day, executive director of Democrats for Life of America, said her group wants to see Roe overturned, and also wants to see more focus on expanding support for pregnant women.
Day said she’s more concerned with Casey’s ties to Emily’s List, a group that supports female Democratic candidates who are in favor of abortion rights. (Casey’s spokesman says that like Emily’s List, Casey also seeks to elect more Democrats.)
“We disagree on this matter, but we do agree on a lot,” Day said. “We agree on the need to reduce abortion and support families.”
Faults both parties as not supporting women
Casey criticizes Republicans who describe themselves as pro-life but have not backed proposals like the Pregnancy Assistance Fund, a state grant program he amended into the Affordable Care Act, and supporting cuts to programs like Medicaid, which pays for nearly half of all U.S. births.
He described a Republican-led bill that recently passed the Pennsylvania House of Representatives to ban abortions from being performed solely due to a Down syndrome diagnosis as among the bills designed to lead to litigation.
“Those efforts would have more credibility if they were doing the effort in the other lane instead of proposing the kind of cuts they propose,” Casey said.
But Casey also finds fault with his own party’s approach on abortion.
While Democrats emphasize the right to an abortion and have pushed back against GOP efforts to slash funding from Medicaid and other public assistance programs, Casey said neither party has pledged to women they’ll have the support they need if they feel ill-equipped to continue a pregnancy.
Casey said he intends to file a series of bills aimed at helping children, including a measure proposing a “national guarantee of a healthy birth.” He would repeal tax breaks given to the highest-income Americans to pay for additional medical care and other support needed to meet that goal.
“We should be a country that says to (pregnant women), ‘We’re ready to help you. You have two choices, but if you choose to have a baby, we’re going to help you, no matter what it costs,’” Casey said. “It should be total solidarity. And it shouldn’t just stop at the healthy birth.”
“Even if abortion weren’t a consideration here, that would be the right thing to do, but it also has the ancillary benefit, or the direct benefit, of reducing the number of abortions, which both sides agree is the thing to do,” he added.
It may prove difficult, if not impossible, to shift the national abortion debate away from the Supreme Court as the new state abortion laws wind their way through the legal system.