Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List, thinks she may have witnessed the exact moment the tipping point was reached in the congressional fight over health care and abortion.
She was in Michigan Democrat Bart Stupak’s congressional office on March 11 to talk to him about the upcoming health care bill vote. Stupak had been a stalwart ally of pro-life groups like hers, and a leader of pro-life House Democrats. Dannenfelser and others were counting on him to help hold the line against expansions of abortion coverage in the bill.
During their talk, a call came in for Stupak from Rep. Henry Waxman, DCalifornia, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and prime mover of the health care bill. Stupak asked Dannenfelser to excuse him.
Things were never the same after that. The pressure, she thinks, got to Stupak. “He wouldn’t talk to us anymore,” she recalls. Nine days later the pro-life Democrats struck a deal and the health care bill passed.
The 111th Congress was supposed to be a major moment for the pro-life cause. Yes, Democrats were in the majority, but they were in the majority partly because of pro-lifers. Finally wising up to the fact that a knee-jerk opposition to pro-life candidates had effectively ceded entire regions of the country to the Republicans, Democratic leaders began recruiting pro-life candidates of their own in 2006 and 2008. It worked, helping the Democrats to regain control of the House and the Senate for the first time since 1994.
By the time the current Congress began in January 2009, the group Democrats for Life of America could claim about 40 pro-life Democrats in the House. That was up almost a dozen from 2004. They also had three in the Senate. That included the Senate majority leader, Nevada’s Harry Reid. The tide, it seemed, had finally turned.
More than a year and half later, the Congress’ crowning achievement in social policy is the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. It is massive, unwieldy, and expensive. It also represents a major step toward a universal, singlepayer health care system. And despite its fans’ claims to the contrary, critics say it will almost certainly subsidize abortion.
A NEW LEVEL OF MISTRUST
It was almost defeated by those prolife Democrats, but after an initially bold and principled stand staked out by Stupak, they wilted under pressure from their leadership. In effect, they decided that they were Democrats first and pro-lifers second. In doing so, they accepted a compromise from the White House of a special executive order preventing abortion funding. The deal has been scorned by most in the movement as a sham.
Today, the leadership of the pro-life movement is left to wonder: Can we trust the pro-life Democrats? Are they worth our support? And if not, how can the movement survive without them?
“There is a level of mistrust out there after the health care debate,” said Tom McClusky, vice president for government affairs for the Family Research Council.
FRC’s political action committ ee is targeting pro-life Democrats who backed Obamacare. “We cannot afford to put hard-earned dollars into the campaigns of people who ‘grow in office’ or cannot see their way under the pressure of party politics,” FRC says on its website.
Kristen Day, president of Democrats for Life of America, staunchly defends the health care act and accuses groups like FRC of simply doing the Republican Party’s bidding.
“These [pro-life House Democrats] are the people the pro-life movement needs to count on. Yet they are out there campaigning against them, which doesn’t make logical sense unless you just want to have a Republican majority. Which a lot of them are trying to do,” Day said.
National Review senior editor Ramesh Ponnuru, author of The Party of Death, says that has it backwards. “I think Democrats for Life proved they’ll accept any offer so long as they are invited to the banquet [by the Democratic leadership]. They just decided that they were going to go with the fi rst part of their organization’s name and jettison the second part,” he said.
But he conceded this fracture is not good for the movement. “It does make the pro-life movement a more Republican movement in its orientation,” Ponnuru said. “This does complicate and set back the goal of creating a bipartisan consensus someday for the protection of human life. I don’t think there is any way to prettify that. The pro-life movement in the long run does need to have a real presence in both parties.”
The great irony of the situation is that had Stupak and his colleagues stood fi rm and refused to compromise, not only would they have maintained the pro life position but, by stopping the health care bill, they would have put their party in a much better position for the 2010 mid-term election.
As this story goes to press, the Rasmussen and other polls have shown the Republicans with as much as a 10-point lead in the generic ballot. Election pundits like Charlie Cook have predicted a GOP takeover of the House and nearparity in the Senate. This is in part due to the extreme unpopularity of the health care bill.
A September Rasmussen poll found that 61 percent of those polled favor repealing at least part of the bill, with 50 percent strongly in favor. Politico reported the same month that Democrats were running three times as many ads opposing the bill as supporting it. Even the White House simply stopped discussing the issue prior to the election, fearing it was hurting Democrats’ chances.
“I think there is going to be a realignment,” Dannenfelser said.
Today pro-life politics are associated with the Republican Party, and most people assume it always was that way. In fact it was not clear for more than decade after the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision how abortion would play as a partisan issue. There were splits in both parties and even in the conservative and liberal movements.
“A generation or two ago, the Republicans were the pro-choice party and the Democrats were considered the pro-life party,” syndicated columnist Mark Shields, a pro-life liberal, told this reporter in a 2004 interview. Planned Parenthood, he notes, was a favorite charity of George H.W. Bush.
Many Democrats, especially Catholic ones, have long liked to portray themselves as guardians of the defenseless and voiceless, and so the pro-life stance seemed natural to them.
In the 95th Congress (1977-78), the Democrats had a 292-seat majority that included an estimated 125 pro-life Democrats. In 1976, then-candidate Jimmy Carter opposed public funding for abortions. Emerging leaders like Dick Gephardt, Al Gore, and Jesse Jackson, Sr. were all originally pro-life.
Even the hard-left was open to a pro-life stance. The Progressive’s September 1980 issue featured dueling articles arguing both the pro-choice and pro life positions. It also ran an editorial acknowledging deep divides over abortion: “The debate over current public policy toward abortion is one that divides the left, just as it divides others.”
“To pretend otherwise—or to maintain that there is no room for differences on this within the left—is to divide us further and to weaken us in what must be our common resolve to build a world in which freedom of choice and the right to life can coexist.”
The following month the Progressive reported receiving an “almost unprecedented” outpouring of reader mail. Many took the pro-life side.
THE BATTLE LINES FORM
So what happened? Ronald Reagan’s 1980 election was obviously a major factor. A staunch pro-lifer, he helped shift the Republicans to the pro-life side, sparking an opposite reaction among Democrats.
Failure to pass the Equal Rights Amendment may have been another factor. After that stalled in the early 1980s, many feminists turned their energies to abortion rights.
Money clearly mattered, too. Emily ’s List, a political action committee founded in 1985 to elect prochoice Democratic women, is a major player in Democratic politics and fundraising today.
Hostility toward pro-lifers within the party became intense. Over the course of the 80s and 90s the numbers of prolife Democrats steadily declined. By 2003 they numbered only about 28 in the House.
These were not, incidentally, all conservative Democrats, as they are sometimes portrayed. Some, like Rep. Chet Edwards, D-Texas, were rightleaning, but the number also included a substantial number of blue-collar, pro-union types like Reps. Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio, Dan Lipinski, D-Illinois, Jim Oberstar, D Michigan, Baron Hill, D-Indiana, and Allan Mollohan, D-West Virginia.
Others were onboard for more idiosyncratic reasons. Rep. Jim Langevin, D-Rhode Island, has a perfect record from Americans for Democratic Action, but as a quadriplegic he has said he understands “how precious life is.”
The group also included some eccentrics like Ohio congressmen Dennis Kucinich, a radical liberal, and Jim Traficant, who was sent to federal prison in 2002 for corruption.
A signature moment in the decline came when Pennsylvania Governor Bob Casey was famously denied a speaking slot at the 1992 Democratic Convention because of his pro-life views. In 2003, the Democratic National Committee refused even to link its website to that of Democrats for Life of America. The group considered it a success when Langevin was able to drop in an oblique reference to the prolife stance during his 2004 Democratic Convention floor speech on the rights of the disabled.
It didn’t help that some of the Democrats turned out to be not very stalwart in their views. When Kucinich made a presidential bid in 2004 he abruptly reversed his long-standing pro-life stance after Nation columnist Katha Politt “outed” him. Not that Kucinich, considered an oddball even among liberals, ever had a chance at the nomination. As Ponnuru noted in The Party of Death: “It is a sad day when a man can be corrupted by power he is never going to have.”
This institutional hostility appeared to change in the 2000s, when Democrats came to the realization they needed to win pro-life votes to get a majority, and so began recruiting prolife candidates in 2006 and 2008, including Reps. Heath Shuler, D-North Carolina, Kathy Dahlkemper, D-Pennsylvania, Brad Ellsworth, D-Indiana, Joe Donnelly, D-Indiana, Steve Driehaus, D-Ohio, and John Boccieri, D-Ohio. All went on to win their seats.
However, the Democratic leadership, it seems, only tolerated their pro-life stance so long as it didn’t affect the ultimate outcome of key votes. The health care debate showed this to be true.
THE FACADE CRACKS
The facade began to crack on November 7, 2009, when Rep. Bart Stupak and Rep. Joe Pitts, R-Pennsylvania, jointly introduced an amendment to the House version of Obamacare that sought to create an ironclad prohibition on the use of federal funds to pay for an abortion or to pay for health insurance coverage that included coverage for abortions. Though technically the Stupak-Pitts Amendment, this became widely known as the “Stupak Amendment.”
The vote passed, 240-194, with the support of 64 House Democrats. This was the same day that the full bill passed the House. The Democratic leadership was desperate to pass anything at that point, and the bill proved far less popular among its members than they had initially thought. With the amendment in place, pro-life Democrats joined their leadership to pass the bill.
Getting the bill through the Senate proved no less difficult. Reid was forced to schedule a vote on Christmas Eve, the Senate’s final vote of 2009. This was a different version of the bill that, while generally less liberal than the House version, didn’t include the Stupak Amendment language on abortion. It was replaced with a “segregation of funds” model in which federal dollars would pay for insurance coverage but abortions would be paid for out of the private dollars used to pay premiums.
This was unacceptable to Stupak and his folks. They noted that money, after all, is fungible. The key point was that federal tax dollars could be used to provide coverage that included abortion. The fact that the funds that went towards abortions were supposedly private was practically meaningless.
Another claim by supporters of the Senate bill—that it did not infringe on the Hyde Amendment—was similarly meaningless. The Hyde Amendment is not, as is widely thought, a government- wide ban on abortion funding. It is an annual appropriations bill amendment that mainly covers Medicaid. Obamacare was creating a whole new program outside of its scope.
Unfortunately for Stupak and his supporters, the Democratic leadership soon decided that the Senate bill was the way to go.
Ordinarily in the legislative process, the House and Senate pass their own versions of a bill, then “reconcile” them to create a third, combined bill, which both chambers must then vote on and pass before the president can sign it into law.
Reid realized that wouldn’t work this time. He simply did not have the votes to pass anything other than the health care bill they had already forced through on Christmas Eve. That meant the only way to send a health care bill to Obama’s desk was to get the House to pass the Senate version. (Since the Senate had already voted on that, there would be no need to reconcile two different bills.)
The only thing standing in its way? The Stupak Amendment. Liberal House Democrats, having already given up hope for including a broad public option in the bill, were not about to compromise further, so the leadership began to pressure the much smaller group of pro-life Democrats.
“The pro-life Democrats had never been ‘whipped’ on a vote before. The Democratic leadership historically allowed pro-life Democrats to vote on pro-life legislation. But here you had legislation that was absolutely central to the party strategy and they wouldn’t give them a pass, and as a result the vast majority of the pro-life Democrats decided they would stick with their party rather than their pro-life convictions,” Ponnuru said.
At first, Stupak was defiant. The former Michigan state trooper, a Catholic with a then-perfect record from National Right to Life, told the New York Times in January, “It’s not the end of the world if it goes down.”
And if it did? “Then you get the message: Fix the abortion language and bring the bill back.”
Instead, the party put pressure on Stupak from all angles. He was vilified on op-ed pages and blogs, his officewas flooded with angry calls, and the leadership tried daily to prevail upon him to reconsider.
American Spectator reporter Jim Antle wrote in a June article that even senior members of the pro-life Democrats began to undercut Stupak behind the scenes, lobbying other pro-life members on behalf of the leadership.
Stupak, whose voting record is otherwise fairly liberal, realized that he didn’t want to be the one who sank the legislation. He began to hold regular meetings with the leadership to find some way out.
“The Democrats wanted to support health care reform. The Republicans didn’t,” Democrats for Life of America’s Kristen Day said.
The Catholic bishops were in a similar quandary as the Democrats. They supported reform broadly speaking, but unlike the pro-life Democrats they refused to cross certain lines. In a March 20 letter to House members, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops stated: “For decades the United States Catholic bishops have supported universal health care” but concluded that the Senate bill “sadly” fails the test of truly protecting life and therefore “ought to be opposed.”
The same day, Stupak gave in. He announced that he would accept a deal that included an executive order from the president essentially restating the Stupak Amendment language.
“All the safeguards we were looking for, the principle we fought for all these months, will be enforced through this executive order,” Stupak said at a press conference the following day announcing the deal. “It’s a good agreement.”
Democrats for Life of America’s Day applauded the deal. “The president’s executive order brought pro-life Democrats firmly within the Democratic coalition that led to the bill’s passage,” she said in a statement.
Not all pro-life Democrats were on board. “There were a number of Democrats who stayed strong throughout, like Heath Schuler. And then there was Congressman Lipinski, for whom universal health care is extremely important, but who refused to compromise on the life issue,” noted FRC’s McClusky.
The bill was signed into law March 23. Pro-life groups denounced the deal. As they almost uniformly pointed out, an executive order was not much of a protection.
“[T]he fact that an executive order is necessary to clarify the legislation points to deficiencies in the statute itself. We do not understand how an executive order, no matter how wellintentioned, can substitute for statutory provisions,” wrote the USCCB in a letter opposing the deal.
As the USCCB’s Richard Doerflinger explained to Lifenews.com, various earlier court rulings have created a “statutory requirement for abortion funding, unless Congress clearly forbids the funding.” An executive order cannot override statutory language.
National Right to Life agreed: “It does not correct any of the serious pro-abortion provisions in the bill. The president cannot amend a bill by issuing an order, and the federal courts will enforce what the law says,” it said in a statement.
Even Planned Parenthood appeared to concur. It said in a statement it was “grateful” that the executive order did not “include the complete and total ban on private health insurance coverage for abortion that Congressman BartStupak had insisted upon.”
The holes were seen in July when the administration gave $160 million to Pennsylvania to establish a “high risk” insurance program. The funding would have extended to any insurance plan that covers abortions. Once this fact attracted media attention, the Department of Health and Human Services scrambled to amend the law to put it in line with the executive order.
“If it were a slam-dunk solution we would not have had this very highprofile debate in Pennsylvania about whether abortions would be covered in the high risk pool. The president himself had to articulate what his position was in that case,” noted Dannenfelser.
AFTER THE FALL
The backlash against the pro-life Democrats was swift. The Susan B. Anthony List was set to give Stupak its “Defender of Life” award the same week the he announced his deal. They withdrew the award and disinvited him from the event.
In the months since then, the deal has not looked any better for the Democrats who backed it. Stupak, after saying he would run for office again, announced his retirement in April. Rep. David Obey, D-Wisconsin, another pro-life Democrat who backed the bill, also retired this year. Rep. Mollohan in West Virginia lost his primary this year.
Meanwhile, Democrats for Life of America has emerged as the only prolife group to defend the Stupak deal, arguing that the executive order is sufficient to prevent abortion funding.
In a March statement on its website, DFLA now accuses pro-life activists of a “misinformation campaign that instigates hate and violence against pro-life Democrats.” It cites National Right to Life and Lifenews.com as the leaders of the misinformation campaign.
The ostensibly pro-life Democrats who backed the executive order deal, such as Driehaus, Dahlkemper, and Boccieri, have now been targeted by pro-life political action committees. If the election is indeed the GOP wave that late September polls indicate it will be, that will result in a pro-life caucus that is substantially more Republican.
“They are being targeted by prolife groups and they are facing tough reelections. A lot of those are in swing seats,” Day said. “I think what some of the pro life groups are doing is not a good strategy for the pro-life movement. They are trying to eliminate the strongest voices within the Democratic Party.”
It was pro-life Democrats, she argued, who were able to work with the administration over the issue of the high-risk pools in Pennsylvania.
Critics retorted this wouldn’t be an issue in the first place if the health care bill hadn’t passed.
“Votes have consequences. That’s what we have gone about making real. We have targeted some of our former allies, albeit with a heavy heart,” Dannenfelser said.
She adds: “The shame of it is that Democrats who held out and didn’t vote for the bill do not have good representation from a group that has Democrat in its name.”