Prominent Pro-Life Catholic Democrat Switches Sides

Rep. Tim Ryan, one of the most principled and prominent pro-life Democrats, announced that he has “changed his thinking on abortion” to support a pro-choice position. In an op-ed in the Akron Beacon Journal, the Ohio Democratic wrote:

[O]ver the past 14 years in political office, I have gained a deeper understanding of the complexities and emotions that accompany the difficult decisions that women and families make when confronted with these situations.

He traced his evolution on the issue from that of a young, single man “raised in a Catholic household,” to an elected official and father and husband who:

[H]eard firsthand from women of all ages, races and socioeconomic backgrounds about the circumstances and hardships that accompany this personal choice, which we should not judge.

…These women gave me a better understanding of how complex and difficult certain situations can become. And while there are people of good conscience on both sides of this argument, one thing has become abundantly clear to me: the heavy hand of government must not make this decision for women and families.

Ryan’s defection from the pro-life camp is particularly significant because he was prominent in the group Democrats for Life. But he increasingly diverged from the organization’s anti-contraception views to the point that he was removed from its board in 2009.

“The new fault line is not between pro-life and pro-choice people,” he wrote at the time. “It’s within the pro-life community. The question now is: ‘are you pro-life and pro-contraception, therefore trying to reduce the need for abortions, or are you pro-life and against contraception’.”

Ryan was a leader of so-called common-ground efforts to bring together pro-life and pro-choice groups on common areas of agreement to reduce the need for abortion, such as increasing access to contraception and providing support for women with unintended pregnancies who wanted to bring them to term. He introduced the “Reducing the Need for Abortions and Supporting Parents Act” of 2006, which brought together such unlikely bedfellows as Catholics for Choice and the Christian Coalition, along with pro-choice Catholic Rep. Rosa DeLauro, but the effort ultimately faltered over the Republican Party’s increasingly hostility to contraception.

Ryan’s defection also comes at a time when pro-life Democrats are an endangered species. As NPR reported earlier this week, only 12 of the 64 Democrats who voted for Rep. Bart Stupak’s amendment limiting abortion access in the Affordable Care Act are still in office:

When Obama took office, there were scores of Democrats in Congress who were anti-abortion and who regularly voted with the Republicans on abortion-related matters — especially abortion funding.

Most members of Stupak’s coalition were Blue Dog Democrats from suburban and exurban districts in southern and border states who eventually fell to challenges from even more conservative Republicans, winnowing the ranks of the Blue Dogs from 8o members of the House to 14.

The rise of ultra-conservative Republicans and the continued importance of abortion as a wedge issue has also dramatically reshaped the religious contours of the parties. More House Republicans now identify as Catholic than at any other time, and GOP Catholics now outnumber Catholic Democrats, effectively ending the party’s historic but long-faltering alliance with Catholicism. According to the Pew Research Center, there are 69 Catholic Republicans in the 114th Congress, up from 37 in the 111th Congress, and 68 Catholic Democrats, down from 98 in the 111th.

And, Pew reports, “the share of GOP members who identify as Catholic also has grown” from 21% to 28% over the same period in keeping with the increasing number of Catholics overall who identify with the Republican Party, with 53% of white Catholics favoring the Republican Party in 2014, versus 39% favoring the Democratic Party.