On June 13, Weekly Standard reporter John McCormack asked former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi about the morality of late-term abortions. His question was probably driven by the recent convictions of Philadelphia abortionist Kermit Gosnell for first degree murder of newborns, whose necks Gosnell slit; her answer was probably driven by the impending House vote on HR 1797, the “Pain Capable Unborn Child Protection Act” (enacted June 18 by a vote of 228-196), which would ban abortions after the fifth month of pregnancy.
McCormack wanted to know what the difference was between what Gosnell did and other late-second/third-trimester abortions. Instead of an answer, Pelosi treated us to an incoherent rant in which we discovered that her “Catholic faith” made her regard the right to abortion after the fifth month of pregnancy as incontestable “sacred ground.”
Former Speaker Pelosi had a John McCormack problem. Actually, she has two John McCormack problems.
Massachusetts Democrat John McCormack was Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives from 1962-71. In his day, the push for getting the government involved in “birth control” was just beginning, and it often was promoted by Republicans: Nelson Rockefeller was a particular votary. Fears of “overpopulation” and the need to disseminate “birth control” had already begun to be heard in the Johnson Administration, but it was Richard Nixon who signed the Family Planning and Population Services Act of 1970. (To his credit, Nixon claimed opposition to abortion and supported repeal of New York’s liberal law.)
While the anti-Catholic bigotry directed at America’s first Catholic President, John Kennedy, was often portrayed in terms of fundamentalist Protestant fears that JFK would install a hotline to the Vatican, there was undoubtedly another side to that opposition: Those who wanted government involvement in population control/eugenics also were looking for reassurance that the faith of the Senator from Massachusetts would not stand in their way.
Luckily (for them) Kennedy, like Pelosi, had a schizophrenic approach to his religious identity. Faith might be something one believes in the deepest recesses of one’s heart, but was certainly not something that should ever affect what one does, the choices one makes. Catholicism might be nice window dressing to attract ethnic voters in the Northeast and Midwest (which, due to subsequent demographic shifts, is far less important to Pelosi than it was to Kennedy) but it should certainly never affect being a politician first.
Unlike Speaker Pelosi, however, Speaker McCormack did not suffer a split religious personality, much less consider third-term abortions “sacred ground.” He never even claimed to be only “personally opposed” to abortion. He was opposed, period. As Speaker of the House, McCormack used his position to sidetrack eugenic/population control legislation. A 1969 Evans and Novak column, for example, decries McCormack for bottling up the bill for the Rockefeller Presidential Commission on Population Growth and the American Future, citing him as an example of “big city Democrats worried about Catholic constituents.” (It’s not unreasonable to suggest that, when the federal government first got into the eugenics business big time through the Family Planning and Population Research Act of 1970 [PL 91-572], Speaker McCormack may have used his influence to ensure that section 1008, a bar on funding abortion, was in the final legislation.)
In the 40 years since Roe, the general positions of the two major parties on abortion have flipped and, since the Carter Administration, Democrats have made fealty to Roe their absolute litmus test on the national stage. [For a masterly analysis of that “flip,” see George McKenna’s 2006 Human Life Review essay, “Criss-Cross: Democrats, Republicans, and Abortion,” linked to nearby.]While pundits frequently demand that Republicans adopt a “big tent” strategy on abortion, no such “tent” is demanded of Democrats. Forty years ago, there were many pro-life Democrats: Bill Proxmire, John Pastore, Vance Hartke, Joe Gaydos, Jim Eastland, Jim Oberstar, Dan Flood, Jim Delaney, Clem Zablocki all come to mind. Even if they were not necessarily pro-life activists, they could be counted on to vote pro-life: My own former Congressman, Ed Patten, was one of them. But with the commitment to abortion adopted by Democrats under Carter, and the “no pro-life Democrat need apply” sign prominently posted under Bill Clinton—who refused to allow Pennsylvania governor Bob Casey, Sr. to speak at the party’s 1992 convention–the pro-life side of the Democrat Party has been eviscerated. When Bart Stupak traded his political leverage over enabling legislation for Obamacare for the mess of pottage of an executive order, the excommunication of pro-life Democrats was essentially complete.
The sad fact is that John W. McCormack, the man of faith who held the Speakership of the House as a Democrat for eight years, would be simply unwelcome in his own party today. Unlike Nancy Pelosi, he would have been capable of giving a coherent answer to John McCormack, the reporter.
John M. Grondelski is former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey.