Associated Press/Photo by Harry Hamburg

Life lesson

Healthcare | Pro-lifers win a big victory in the House, but the fight over abortion funding continues

Issue: "Homegrown terror," Dec. 5, 2009

This spring House Democrat Bart Stupak told WORLD that the pro-abortion side of his party would "get a battle" if they tried to change laws dealing with abortion. And when House leaders this month tried to push through a healthcare overhaul without explicitly excluding taxpayer-funded abortions, Stupak went to war.

The result was a rare congressional vote on abortion that quickly became a watershed moment for the pro-life movement as it secured its first victory in the effort to keep abortion out of Democratic designs on healthcare.

Overhaul advocates spent months trying to push aside the abortion question until suddenly they found that the issue had taken over center stage on the day House lawmakers voted for the overall healthcare bill.

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Credit Stupak's insistence that House leaders not ignore his amendment that prevents federal funding for abortion services. And credit nearly a quarter of House Democrats who joined Republicans in securing the amendment's passage.

"The fact that there really is a bipartisan consensus for life in the House, and that it reflects the views of mainstream America, has rocked the political establishment," Charmaine Yoest, president of Americans United for Life, said.

That Stupak held firm should not surprise those who are familiar with his biography. He honed his negotiating skills during a dozen years as a Michigan police officer. But Stupak told me that the House pro-abortion caucus ironically played a role in getting his measure added as the only amendment to the final bill.

Stupak explained that the night before the Nov. 7 vote House Speaker Nancy Pelosi came to him with a proposal to insert into the bill a toned-down version of his amendment. She asked Stupak to try to sell this to the 40-member coalition of pro-life Democrats that had threatened to scuttle the overhaul. Meanwhile Pelosi would pitch the compromise to the pro-abortion side.

But those abortion advocates balked at including any pro-life concessions in the bill and demanded a House vote. When told of this decision, Stupak decided that if they wanted a vote, he'd give them one but with his original, strong pro-life language.

During the vote, Stupak worked the House floor, talking to more than 100 lawmakers, using their past voting records to convince them that they had to support his amendment. Stupak turned out to be a better vote counter than the pro-abortion crowd: 64 Democrats sided with Stupak in the 240 to 194 victory.

"The pro-choice people were overconfident. They thought they had the votes," Stupak said. "They rejected the agreement, and it came back to bite them."

But pro-life lawmakers like Stupak realize that abortion advocates are unlikely to make the same mistake twice.

Stupak said the "long knives and venom are out." Indeed, pro-abortion groups are marshalling their resources for an all-out offensive that will culminate with a Dec. 2 lobbying day on Capitol Hill. Planned Parenthood, the day after the vote, sent an action alert asking supporters to email President Obama that "now it's time to make good" on his campaign "promise to put reproductive healthcare at the center of his reform plan." Since then, Democratic leaders from Congress to the White House have predicted that the abortion exclusions will not survive a final bill.

Healthcare has now moved to the Senate where fewer pro-life Democrats reside. Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., has said that he will fight to make sure the Stupak amendment is in the Senate version. But other Democrats are confident it doesn't have the votes to win.

The survival of the healthcare overhaul-the top priority for Democrats in 2009-hinges on a procedure that is designed to end a life. "The question before Congress is, is abortion just another medical treatment that the government should make available?" said Douglas Johnson with the National Right to Life Committee. "Every member of Congress will go on record about this more than once in the coming weeks. The issue is no longer under the radar. It will be a battle royal."

Obama, trying to defuse the furor, recently told ABC News that "this is a healthcare bill, not an abortion bill." But activists on both sides of the debate seem to have a unified response: Mr. President, we disagree.

Edward Lee Pitts
Edward Lee Pitts

Lee teaches journalism at Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa, and is the associate dean of the World Journalism Institute.


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