How the Stupak-Pitts Amendment May Change Our Politics

Deal W. Hudson
November 12, 2009

Last Friday night, when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi decided to allow a vote on the Stupak-Pitts Amendment, she may have unwittingly altered the direction of the Obama presidency and the Democratic Party.

For the first time in a long time, the pro-life issue is setting the agenda for the national debate on a major piece of legislation. Even more startling is the fact that the impetus for this inversion results from the courageous efforts of a pro-life leader in the Democratic Party, Rep. Bart Stupak (D-MI).

Stupak was aptly described by William McGurn of the Wall Street Journal as “The Man Who Made Pelosi Cry Uncle.” He also made the media sit up and pay attention. As McGurn, a former White House speechwriter, commented:

Up until almost literally the 11th hour, Mr. Stupak’s push for a vote was treated as a sideshow. Nor was President Barack Obama ever called to answer for his flatly contradictory public statements on the place of abortion (the preferred term is “reproductive health care”) in any health-care reform.

Democratic Party leaders, aligned with pro-abortion lobbying groups, initially saw Pelosi’s move as an effort to gain passage of the bill out of the House to the Senate and ultimately to the conference, where the language barring abortion could be stripped out. But if the 64 anti-abortion funding House Democrats stand their ground, that won’t be possible.

That fact has not gone unnoticed. President Obama himself told ABC News that the legislation was intended as a health-care bill, “not an abortion bill.” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) promised the Senate version of the bill will not contain abortion funding. (It’s no coincidence that Reid is facing a tough reelection in his home state.)

Some pro-life leaders, like the pro-abortion Democrats, viewed Pelosi’s decision with initial cynicism; but under persistent, behind-the-scenes urging from Doug Johnson, the legislative director of National Right to Life, they joined together to urge pro-life members of Congress to support the bill rather than merely vote “present.” As John McCormack at the Weekly Standard has correctly argued:

Bringing down Stupak would have seriously hurt the effort to defeat Obamacare. The minority Republicans need public opinion and moderate Democrats on their side to defeat the health-care bill. Betraying pro-life Democrats and playing the part of cynical politicians for the media would have damaged that effort.

Republicans wisely chose to stand by the 64 Democrats who risked the wrath of Planned Parenthood and NARAL Pro-Choice America by supporting the amendment. Pro-abortion groups have already begun their counterattack, collecting signatures of more than 40 members of Congress who would not vote for the bill if it were returned to the House with the amendment intact. The same story from CBS News reports that liberal bloggers have been quick to point out that 62 of the 64 Democrats were men as if that were sufficient to explain their vote.

The role of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in the passage of the Stupak-Pitts Amendment has been widely, and justly, praised. But the fact that the USCCB lobbyists did not give up on members of the Democratic Party as important agents in the pro-life effort is to be especially commended. As a result, a genuinely new space within the Democratic Party for pro-life work has been opened, and the party itself, as well as the Obama agenda in the Congress, is being substantially altered.

It’s because of this successful outreach to House Democrats that I am delighted to admit that I was wrong in predicting last August that Catholics would not succeed in getting abortion out of the health-care bill. It’s far from a done deal, as I argued last Saturday night, but the amendment’s passage puts the pro-life coalition in a strong position to influence the fate of this bill.

Obama’s health-care legislation has been hailed as the flagship effort of his administration. One of his closest advisors, Tina Tchen, director of the White House Office of Public Engagement, promised Planned Parenthood in late July that abortion funding would be in the health-care plan. It’s safe to say that the pro-abortion groups who have supported Obama from the very beginning expected the White House and congressional Democrats to fight any effort to remove abortion funding.

Thus, the collective hysteria of pro-abortion advocates is not surprising. Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-CA) has called for an IRS investigation of the USCCB – “Who elected them to Congress?” she huffs. Others hurl at the USCCB the same “theocracy” invectives they once threw at George W. Bush. Woolsey and her fellow travelers are only exposing their fear and frustration in the face of a pro-life majority in both houses of Congress.

As for the person who started this ball rolling, Pelosi finds herself in a box of her own making. She can’t weaken the amendment language without losing a good number of Democratic House votes, as well as that of the lone Republican, Rep. Joseph Cao (R-LA). And the U.S. bishops would consider it a betrayal of the highest order if the health-care bill, containing their much-desired public option, is defeated by a Catholic speaker trying to make good on her promises to the abortion lobby.

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