The Friday before the decisive vote on health care reform, a pivotal group of Democrats huddled in House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office to discuss the bill’s abortion funding provisions. Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colorado) of the Congressional Pro-Choice Caucus stormed out, warning that the “loss on health care coverage” would be in pro-life hands.
DeGette was angry because it appeared that Pelosi had reached a deal with Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Michigan), the leader of a swing bloc of pro-life Democrats who had been trying to insert into the bill an ironclad ban on taxpayer funding of abortion. Using a legislative maneuver called an enrollment corrections bill, Stupak’s pro-life language could be reinstated and the legislation kicked back to the Senate. If pro-choice Democrats would not accept health care reform that did not subsidize elective abortions, they would have to kill the bill themselves.
For the first time in decades, prolife Democrats—though relatively few in number—were in a position to shape their party’s biggest legislative initiative. The Democrats’ pro-choice majority could either deal with a prolife voice in their party or prioritize taxpayer-funded abortion over their stated goal of universal medical coverage. Stupak and his colleagues had their moment, but let it slip away. The health care bill passed without any binding pro-life language; a majority of pro-life Democrats capitulated in exchange for a mere fig leaf of an executive order.
Stupak’s surrender was perhaps the most anticlimactic moment of the long health care debate, rivaled only by another pro-life Democrat, Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska, dropping his more comprehensive objections to the bill in exchange for the “Cornhusker Kickback.” By walking away from a stellar record of leadership on behalf of the unborn, Stupak dealt a near-fatal blow to the pro-life Democrats at the very moment they had the most leverage.
Sadly, this has become par for the course for many pro-life Democrats. After the 2004 elections, even many pro-choice Democrats—including their presidential nominee, Sen. John Kerry (D-Massachusetts)—concluded that their party’s relentless abortion advocacy was a political liability. Contrary to the conventional wisdom, it was the supporters of unfettered abortion and not the pro-lifers who were perceived as fanatical extremists.
Democrats selected a self-described pro-lifer, Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nevada), to lead their party in the Senate. Pelosi and Reid backed a pro-life Catholic, former Rep. Tim Roemer (D-Indiana), for chairman of the Democratic National Committee. Democrats even were willing to entertain rhetorical concessions to pro-life members of their party while negotiating the 2008 platform. But it all came to naught, largely because too many pro-life Democrats were more interested in finding “common ground” than nurturing a culture of life within their party.
Since ascending to the Senate Democrats’ top leadership position, Reid has voted with the pro-life side on exactly four of 17 votes scored by the National Right to Life Committee (NRLC). Worse, Reid was instrumental in gutting the House-passed health care bill’s pro-life language and replacing it with an unreliable “segregation of funds” hedge against public funding of abortion. He was the only even nominal pro-lifer in the Senate to vote against the Nelson Hatch equivalent of the Stupak Amendment, which gained the backing of several pro-choice Democrats from Republican-leaning states. Roemer lost the DNC chairmanship race to Howard Dean, largely because of the abortion issue, but Dean nevertheless proclaimed the party open to “the right kind of pro life person.” And leading pro-life Democrats declared themselves pleased when their party’s platform offered welfare benefits to women who choose to carry their children to term even though it failed to recognize their dissent on the issue of abortion.
In recent years, we have seen erstwhile Democratic pro-lifers in Congress vote to spend taxpayer dollars on research that destroys human embryos, aid to family planning organizations that perform or promote abortions overseas, subsidies for abortion providers like Planned Parenthood, and even public funding of abortion in the District of Columbia. Rep. Dale Kildee (DMichigan), a longtime pro-life liberal, saw his NRLC score dive from 100 percent in 2005-2006 to just 28 percent in 2007-2008. That made it less surprising when Kildee was one of the first members of the “Stupak Dozen” to relent.
Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) was considered a rising star among pro-life Democrats, but by 2007 he was voting 100 percent of the time with NARAL Pro- Choice America. The only pro-life vote he has cast in the last two Congresses was for the Stupak Amendment, though the Senate bill’s abortion language turned out to be fine with him too. Ryan’s argument that it is somehow pro-life to give money to Planned Parenthood became too much even for Democrats for Life of America (DFLA), one of the few pro-life organizations to regard President Obama’s executive order as a real compromise over health care reform and abortion.
Complaining about being “booted” by DFLA in 2009, Ryan told a local newspaper, “I can’t figure out for the life of me how to stop pregnancies without contraception. Don’t be mad at me for wanting to solve the problem.” For good measure he dismissed DFLA, an organization that had long supported Ryan’s “common ground” approach to abortion, as a “fringe group.”
But Stupak had continued to have a 100 percent rating from NRLC as late as 2007-2008. In the current Congress, when President Obama overturned the Mexico City Policy banning federal funding of pro-abortion groups overseas, Stupak teamed with Rep. Chris Smith (R-New Jersey) to try to reinstate it. When Democrats in Congress threatened pro-life riders in the appropriations bills—the most important of which is the Hyde Amendment— Stupak joined with Republicans to protect them.
For much of the health care debate, no legislator of either party did as much as Stupak to block the public funding of abortion. When Stupak paired with Rep. Joe Pitts (R-Pennsylvania) to offer the only language on the issue that proved acceptable to the Catholic bishops and other leading pro-life advocates, some putatively pro-life Republicans actually urged a “present” vote because they feared the health care bill would be harder to defeat if it did not subsidize abortion.
Stupak even cobbled together a group of pro-life Democrats, many of them economically liberal, who pledged to stand with him against taxpayer funding of abortion. “It’s been part of who we are, part of our make-up,” he said of his fellow pro-life Democrats. “It’s the principal belief that we have. We are not just going to abandon it in the name of health care.” The House Democratic leadership appeared to believe him— they allowed the chamber to pass his amendment in December and continued to negotiate with Stupak until the very end.
Yet there were reasons to doubt the Stupak Dozen’s commitment— and even a few troubling signals coming from Stupak himself. There emerged a video of Stupak at a town hall meeting telling his constituents he could vote for a health care bill that funded abortion if he fought the good fight and lost: “If everything I want [is] in the final bill, I like everything in the bill except you have public funding for abortion, and we had a chance to run our amendment and we lost. OK, I voted my conscience, stayed true to my principles, stayed true to the beliefs of this district, could I vote for health care? Yes I still could.”
In March, Stupak told The Hill that the health care fight had been a “living hell” and he felt conflicted between his pro-life convictions and support for health care reform. “It’s caused a lot of internal conflict. ‘Am I doing the right thing?’—you know?” he said. “I believe everyone should have health care. In all my correspondence—I’ve been saying for years—it’s a right, not a privilege.” Stupak concluded: “You know, maybe for me that’s the best: I stay true to my principles and beliefs…vote no on this bill and then it passes anyways. Maybe for me is the best thing to do.”
If even Stupak sounded an uncertain trumpet, there was little reason for prolifers to be optimistic about legislators like Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio), an economic liberal with a mixed abortion voting record that was on balance prochoice. What made the Stupak Dozen a swing vote on health care is that they were liberals who both opposed taxpayer funding of abortion and wanted the bill to pass. Although they were mostly Catholic, these Democrats lacked a framework for prioritizing their objectives.
Little by little, the Democratic leadership whittled away at the Stupak Dozen until their numbers were cut in half. Yet Stupak would still not get his wish: The Hill’s whip count showed 39 House Democrats planning to vote against the health care bill, the exact number needed to defeat it. Stupak and his remaining holdouts were the deciding votes. They could have forced the leadership’s hand. Instead they capitulated.
Stupak switched his vote to yes— along with Reps. Jerry Costello (DIllinois), Kathy Dahlkemper (D-Pennsylvania), Joe Donnelly (D-Indiana), Steve Driehaus (D-Ohio), Alan Mollohan (D-West Virginia), and Nick Rahall (D-West Virginia)—in exchange for an executive order from the president. (Donnelly received additional encouragement from former Notre Dame president Father Theodore Hesburgh.) But Obama’s order merely reiterated Democratic talking points about the Senate abortion language without addressing substantive pro-life concerns. Moreover, it has no legally binding effect on the statute, it must be enforced by a pro-choice administration, and it can be rescinded by any president (including this one) at any time—assuming the federal courts don’t overturn or ignore it first.
At least one pro-life liberal held firm: Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-Illinois) still voted no. So did Rep. Lincoln Davis (D-Tennessee), a pro-lifer who voted with Americans for Democratic Action 80 percent of the time in 2008. Rep. Steven Lynch (D-Massachusetts) switched his vote from yes to no, but did not attribute this change to abortion. Most pro-life Democrats who ended up voting against the bill also opposed it on other grounds, like Reps. Gene Taylor (D-Mississippi) and Heath Shuler (DNorth Carolina).
The pro-life Democrats who were truly in play during the health care debate were the ones most susceptible to the argument that reforming health care, with or without abortion funding, is itself a pro-life vote. When forced to choose between the health care bill and their pro-life beliefs, the Stupak Democrats picked the former—no doubt earning Howard Dean’s approval as the right kind of pro-life people.
It is possible the bill might have passed even without Stupak’s defection, though it is hard to see how this absolves the wayward pro-life Democrats. Pro choice forces claimed that real concessions from the Democratic leadership might have jeopardized between 40 and 55 votes. Pelosi may have held additional votes in reserve, from members who hailed from more competitive districts than most of the Stupak Dozen. But promises to oppose the health care bill from the left had repeatedly rung hollow. And if Pelosi had the votes in her pocket, it is unlikely she would have spent so much energy negotiating with Stupak.
In the February issue (“Stupak’s Stand”), this writer concluded, “Stupak has shown his colors as the true leader among pro-life Democrats.” Now he has tragically decided to lead them further along their path toward self-marginalization.