During the congressional debate over health care reform, the issue of taxpayer funding for abortions became one of the most significant lightning rods for Democrats on Capitol Hill, with Democratic Congressman Bart Stupak of Michigan at the center of the storm.
“I don’t think the party leadership expected this,” Stupak said. “They really did not think we would make such a big issue out of it. And they were wrong.”
Although the Democratic Party leadership remains solidly in favor of taxpayer funding for abortions, part of their strategy for regaining majorities in the House of Representatives and the Senate in 2006 was built around electing more moderate members. The continued election of pro-life Democrats, however, has created a majority coalition of Republicans and Democrats in the House opposed to abortion on demand.
Stupak has risen to leadership within this coalition, a role that places him at the center of a political whirlwind. Along with forty Democratic members of the House, Stupak refused to support the health care reform package unless it contained assurances that no taxpayer money will go toward funding abortions.
Bill Covered Abortions
Under the version of the health care bill originally presented in the House, there was nothing to prevent the subsidization of abortion coverage with taxpayer funds via health care exchanges or other methods. Planned Parenthood and other abortion providers stood to gain millions in taxpayer funding through a legal end-run around the late Rep. Henry Hyde’s legislation prohibiting the use of federal funds to pay for abortions, according to Charmaine Yoest, president of Americans United for Life in Washington, DC.
“The Hyde amendment has prohibited exactly this kind of taxpayer funding for abortions since 1976,” said Yoest. “But before these brave congressmen put their amendment forward, there was nothing in this bill to prevent this direct taxpayer funding. The truth is that within this health care legislation, we are confronting the greatest expansion of abortion since Roe v. Wade.”
Seeking to avert this, Stupak joined with Republican Joe Pitts of Pennsylvania to cosponsor an amendment to the House version of health care legislation, even though President Obama insisted it was unnecessary.
“You’ve heard that this is all going to mean government funding of abortion. Not true,” Obama said on August 19. “These are all fabrications that have been put out there in order to discourage people from meeting what I consider to be a core ethical and moral obligation.”
Yet according to FactCheck.org, a project of the nonpartisan Annenberg Public Policy Center, it was Obama who was bearing false witness: “Though we of course take no position on whether the legislation should allow or not allow coverage for abortions, the House bill does just that.”
For some time it appeared the bipartisan prolife coalition would not even get a chance to add their amendment to the legislation.
“Speaker Nancy Pelosi had no intention of allowing a vote on the floor on the amendment,” said Yoest. “But pro-lifers from across the country, Republicans and Democrats, came together to make it happen, shutting down the switchboards with phone calls. They engaged, and they were heard.”
Pelosi soon realized she would not have a majority of support for the health care legislation if she did not allow a vote on the amendment. After lengthy debate, the House voted overwhelmingly for the Stupak-Pitts amendment, by a margin of 240-194. The health care package then passed by a five-vote margin, 220-215, showing Stupak’s promise of opposition would have almost certainly resulted in its defeat.
Strong Public Support
Polls indicate Stupak’s position is supported by the American people. A Washington Post/ABC News poll conducted after the vote found 61 percent “support barring coverage for abortions for those receiving public subsidies.”
However, the passage of the Stupak-Pitts amendment does not ensure the views of these Americans or the bipartisan prolife majority in the House will be heard in the final version of the legislation. In the wake of the amendment’s passage, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida, chief deputy whip for the House Democrats, took to the television airwaves to state, “I am confident that when it comes back from the conference committee that that language won’t be there.”
In the Senate, the key prolife Democrat is Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska, who offered language similar to the Stupak-Pitts amendment on the floor but was shut down by a 54-45 vote. Nelson had promised to filibuster the bill if the language was not in the final version, but he ultimately voted for cloture after the language was partially modified.
Stupak Holds Firm
For his part, Stupak says he and his fellow prolife Democrats in the House will not budge if the health care bill comes back from conference without language preventing taxpayer funded abortions, despite political threats from the pro-choice lobby.
“We are going to hold firm and make sure the Stupak-Pitts language stays when this legislation comes back to us. We will not vote for this bill if that language is not there,” Stupak said.
When asked how he believes negotiations will play out if the bill comes back to the House without his language, Stupak is definitive.
“We’ll have a conversation if it comes back that way,” Stupak said. “Not a negotiation; a conversation.”
Ben Domenech is managing editor of Health Care News.