Stupak’s Stand

The Michigan congressman has emerged as the true leader of the pro-life Democrats.

At a time when other putatively pro-life Democrats allowed their party affiliation to trump their professed commitment to the sanctity of innocent human life, Congressman Bart Stupak held firm. The nine-term Michigan Democrat thus found himself at ground zero in the debate over health care reform, pitting the biggest legislative initiative of his president and party against his heartfelt conviction that unborn children deserve legal protection from the earliest stages of development.

Stupak isn’t the biggest name among pro-life Democrats in Congress. He arguably doesn’t even make the top three. Until recently, much of the media attention focused on three members of the upper chamber who describe themselves as opponents of abortion. Sen. Robert P. Casey, Jr. (D-Penn.) has the best family name in pro-life Democratic circles. His late father and namesake, the former governor of Pennsylvania, was memorably denied a speaking slot at the 1992 Democratic National Convention because he wanted to speak out against his party’s pro-abortion platform. Casey campaigned in 2006 as a Democrat who would follow in his father’s footsteps.

Then there is Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), whose elevation to his party’s top leadership position was widely heralded as signaling new openness to “common ground” on abortion. Reid has broken with his party on resolutions reaffirming Roe v. Wade and has told pro-life groups he opposes abortion except in cases of rape, incest, and when the mother’s life is in danger. In March 2009, Reid spokesman Jim Manley described Reid as “strongly pro-life.” “I have consistently cast my vote against abortion,” Reid said during a Senate debate on health care legislation. “To me, it’s a matter of conscience.”

Finally, there is Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska, the Democrat with the most conservative voting record in the Senate. Nelson had many objections to the health care legislation favored by most members of his party. But he said he would participate in a Republican-led filibuster even if just one was not resolved: as a pro-lifer, he would not support any reform bill that did not directly prohibit the use of public funds to pay for abortions. “Without modifications, the language concerning abortion is not sufficient,” Nelson told an interviewer.

None of them did as much to be a pro-life champion as Stupak did when he teamed with Congressman Joe Pitts (R-Penn.) to offer an eponymous amendment imposing an airtight ban on the use of federal funds to subsidize abortion. Prior to that, Democrats were relying on two dodges to say that their health care bill wouldn’t channel taxpayer monies to abortion clinics. The first was the argument that such subsidies were already illegal under the terms of the Hyde Amendment, with exceptions for rape, incest, and the mother’s life.

But the Hyde Amendment is an annual rider on the Health and Human Services appropriation that must be renewed each year. A single failure to act on it by Congress will cause the amendment to lose its force of law. More importantly, the health care bill creates new funding streams outside the parameters of the HHS spending bill, making the Hyde Amendment— designed for Medicaid, not some thennonexistent government health insurance exchange—superfluous.

The second dodge came in the form of an amendment proposed by prochoice Congresswoman Lois Capps (D-Calif.). Her amendment allowed pro-life health insurance policies that do not cover abortion to be offered through the government exchanges, but its ban on public funding of abortion was an accounting gimmick: Capps promised that taxpayer dollars could be used to purchase abortion coverage but that only private premium dollars could be used to procure the abortions themselves, as if money weren’t fungible. (Never mind that the need for the Capps Amendment negated the argument that abortion subsidies in the health care bill were already prohibited by the Hyde Amendment.)

The Stupak Amendment, by contrast, was simple and straightforward: the federal government would not directly pay for abortions nor would it subsidize the purchase of insurance that would be used to pay for abortions. It was the only abortion language that the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops accepted. Cardinal Justin Rigali, chair of the bishops’ Committee on Pro-life Activities, and Bishop William Murphy, chair of the Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, sent Congress a letter noting that as it stood the House bill “creates elaborate measures requiring people to pay for other people’s abortions with their taxes, private premiums or federal subsidies.” The bishops concluded: “Our bishops’ conference has been working for many years to support health care reform legislation that truly protects the life, dignity, health, and consciences of all. Adopting this amendment will help [us move] toward this essential national priority and moral imperative.”

Contrary to self-interested assertions by groups like Planned Parenthood, the Stupak Amendment did not “ban” elective abortion. It simply required insurance policies covering them to be paid for by the policyholder’s own funds, with no benefit of tax dollars or premiums collected by the government. It was identical to the abortion funding restrictions in place for recipients of Medicaid and the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP), as well as the restrictions in the law governing health insurance coverage for members of the US military and civilian employees of the federal government.

Yet efforts to add strong pro-life language to the health care bill had repeatedly been defeated in the relevant congressional committees, making it seem unlikely that the Stupak Amendment would be adopted—until it became clear that the House Democratic leadership needed pro-life votes. On November 7, 2009, the amendment was inserted into the House bill by a vote of 240 to 194. Stupak was backed by 64 Democrats, many of them prochoice. The Affordable Health Care Act of America passed the House by three votes, winning the backing of key prolife Democrats like Stupak and its only Republican supporter, Congressman Joseph Cao of Louisiana, a former seminarian who opposes taxpayer funding of abortion.

It is improbable that pro-choice House Peaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) would have allowed a full House vote on the Stupak Amendment if her health care bill could have passed without it, despite her professed Catholic faith. Thus the pro-life Democrats in the House managed to do what their fiscally conservative counterparts in the Blue Dog Coalition have usually failed to accomplish— gain a concession of real consequence from their liberal leadership.

Bart Stupak is no Blue Dog. A traditional lunch-pail Democrat from a blue-collar district, he voted with the liberal Americans for Democratic Action 90 percent of the time in 2008 and 95 percent of the time in 2007. By contrast, he received a 12 percent rating from the American Conservative Union both years.

Stupak’s liberalism is most evident in economic policy: he has scored a zero from the fiscally conservative Americans for Prosperity for three years running and has never voted with the tax-cutting Club for Growth more than 8 percent of the time. As of 2008, Stupak had a 98 percent lifetime rating from the AFL-CIO.

Stupak is a pro-government, prolabor, pro-life Catholic liberal in the mold of Robert Casey, Sr.—more so than Casey’s son, though Stupak’s voting record does run counter to Church teachings on some issues, like legislation pertaining to homosexuality.

Born in Milwaukee, Stupak graduated from Michigan’s Gladstone High School in 1970 and received an associate’s degree from Northwestern Michigan Community College in Traverse City two years later. He later collected a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from Saginaw Valley State University and graduated from Thomas M. Cooley Law School in Lansing.

Stupak spent 12 years as a police officer, starting on the local force in Escanaba in 1972 before becoming a Michigan state trooper. He was medically retired in 1984 after sustaining a knee injury in the line of duty, whereupon he began practicing law and running for public office. Stupak was first elected to Congress in the big Democratic year of 1992, thwarting a Republican comeback attempt in Michigan’s First District and taking 55 percent of the vote as Bill Clinton carried the state in the presidential race.

In the ensuing years, Stupak has emerged as a rare pro-life stalwart in the Democratic caucus. Recently, even many Democrats who oppose abortion have voted to spend taxpayer funds on embryo-destructive research and have been co-opted into “third way” campaigns that purport to reduce the abortion rate by shoveling federal dollars to organizations that perform the deadly procedure. Stupak, on the other hand, has continued to accumulate 100 percent ratings from the National Right to Life Committee.

Stupak has also been a leader in many pro-life fights. When congressional liberals contemplated working behind the scenes to delete pro-life riders from appropriations—most prominently the Hyde Amendment, but also restrictions on human embryo experimentation and conscience clauses for medical professionals who decline to participate in abortions—Stupak teamed with Representatives Chris Smith (R-NJ), Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), and Heath Shuler (D-NC) to publicize and fight those efforts.

“We respectfully request that the prolife riders be included in any legislation reported out of the Appropriations Committee,” they wrote in a letter to the House leadership signed by more than 180 members from both parties. “If this Congress intends to rescind these riders, at a minimum the American people deserve a full debate with an up-or-down vote.” In the end, neither pro-choice appropriators nor the Democratic leadership chose to pick a fight on this issue and the pro-life provisions in the spending bills remained intact.

Not all pro-life Democrats have been so steadfast. Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio), for example, defected on votes pertaining to stem-cell funding, cloning, federal subsidies to Planned Parenthood, and aid to international organizations that perform or promote abortions overseas. Senate Majority Leader Reid voted against the pro-life side on eight out of 11 key legislative items between 2005 and 2008. As Ramesh Ponnuru wrote in National Review early last year,

“Reid may still consider himself a prolifer, but if so he has an idiosyncratic definition of the term.” Reid demonstrated his tenuous commitment to the pro-life cause once again when he produced a health care bill with significantly more permissive language on abortion funding than the one that passed the House. Pro-life Democrats in the Senate—including two, Nelson and Casey, who vote with pro-lifers most of the time, and Mark Pryor of Arkansas, who shares Reid’s idiosyncratic definition of “pro-life,” objected. Unfortunately, they did not do what was required to have their objections taken seriously in the predominantly pro-choice Senate: they did not filibuster Reid’s bill. They instead voted for the motion to proceed, taking the fight to an amendment process they were always almost certain to lose.

Nevertheless, they did try to amend the Senate bill to address pro-life concerns. Nelson teamed with Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) to offer a Senate version of the Stupak Amendment, a real ban on taxpayer funding of abortion via health care reform. Predictably, the Senate voted to table their amendment by a 54 to 45 margin. All Republicans except for Senators Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine voted with pro-lifers. All Democrats except for Nelson, Casey, Pryor, Ted Kaufman of Delaware, Byron Dorgan and Kent Conrad of North Dakota, and Evan Bayh of Indiana—the last three prochoice Democrats who have to run for reelection in Republican-leaning states—voted against pro-lifers.

At that point, pro-life Democratic senators still had leverage to block the bill on the second cloture vote until their demands were met. But Casey soon began to work with Reid on compromise language. Only Nelson was telling reporters that he planned to stand firm. Asked by an interviewer on a Nebraska radio show if Reid would get his bill passed by Christmas, Nelson blustered, “Are you talking about this Christmas or next Christmas?”

Within three days, Nelson caved and announced he would be the 60th vote to advance Reid’s bill. The abortion funding language he and Casey deemed acceptable relied on the Capps Amendment accounting gimmick—a “segregation of funds” promising to keep federal subsidies flowing to insurance plans that cover abortion while preventing tax dollars from paying for abortions themselves. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius explained the trickery as an “accounting procedure” that would direct premium dollars to an abortion coverage fund applying “across the board and not just to women, and certainly not just to women who want to choose abortion coverage.”

Bart Stupak was undeterred. Referring obliquely to a sweetheart deal for Nebraska Nelson secured in exchange for his vote, Stupak told National Review Online, “You don’t buy me off!” Stupak also issued a statement saying, “A review of the Senate language indicates a dramatic shift in federal policy that would allow the federal government to subsidize insurance policies with abortion coverage.” He told the Cybercast News Service that at least “10 or 12” other pro-life Democrats in the House shared his concerns.

Whether the pro-life rump of the Democratic Party will ultimately succeed in their effort to keep their president’s signature legislative initiative from subsidizing abortion remains to be seen. But Stupak has shown his colors as the true leader among pro-life Democrats. “It’s been part of who we are, part of our make up,” he said. “It’s the principal belief that we have. We are not just going to abandon it in the name of health care.”


If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.