Pelosi Rolled the Prolife Movement

Published November 17, 2009

If President Barack Obama’s government-run health care plan comes to pass, he and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi will have some longtime foes to thank for clearing the last stretch of the path: America’s prolife movement and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

On Saturday, there remained only one final obstacle preventing passage of Pelosi’s 1,990-page behemoth government health care plan: concern among prolife Democrats about the absence of any protections against taxpayer funding of abortions.

A full 34 House Democrats had publicly announced they would vote against the bill—ultimately it proved to be 39—and many Hill staffers believe the number would have increased had the final bill not included protections against such funding. Final passage would have failed if just three votes had turned.

A tactical failure on the part of the prolife movement gave Pelosi a gift. After prolife Reps. Bart Stupak (D-MI) and Joe Pitts (R-PA) proposed an amendment with language blocking such funding, the National Right to Life Committee, Family Research Council, and other prolife groups strongly supported it, even saying they would score the vote so a “no” or “present” vote would hurt a legislator’s prolife rating. That gave massive political cover to prolife Democrats.

Despite attempts by Rep. John Shadegg (R-AZ) and others to convince their prolife colleagues to vote “present,” the Stupak-Pitts amendment was approved, though not before House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH) extracted an admission from Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) that there was no guarantee the language would appear in the final bill.

If the Senate passes a version of the health care legislation, the language must survive a conference meeting of both houses, where the pro-choice lobby fully expects to remove it. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL), chief deputy whip for the House Democrats, said Sunday, “I am confident that when it comes back from the conference committee that that language won’t be there.”

There is no reason to doubt her. The ultimate language on abortion in this bill will be decided by Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, and the White House.

It’s clear that Pelosi, Obama, and Reid will not abandon the pro-abortion groups, their longtime allies. Instead, they have enabled prolife Democrats to express their views in a politically harmless manner, and it will be much easier to strong-arm them into voting for the final bill since they’re protected from political attack by prolifers or Catholics because of the amendment vote.

The bill is now hanging in the balance in the Senate, where—unlike the House—there is no bipartisan prolife majority. It’s a rare moment in legislative politics when you can have your cake and eat it too, and rarer still when that cake was made and delivered eagerly by your longtime foes.

It’s impossible to make the case that the prolifers’ cause is served by this bill. Anyone who cares about abortion will find far more to balk at within this package than taxpayer funding—including regulations that will plague Catholic hospitals, the absence of conscience clause protections, the negligible considerations for parents of special-needs children, and, of course, the ethically daunting end-of-life issues.

If this legislation ultimately passes, the prolife movement will be cleaning up collateral damage in the courts and in Congress for another half-century.

Had they chosen to be wise as serpents and think tactically about the ultimate results of their support, prolife groups could have stopped this legislation in its tracks. They now have an obligation to hold prolife Democrats’ feet to the fire if the bill comes back from conference without any significant restrictions on funding abortions with taxpayer money. Otherwise, the Machiavellian Pelosi will have the last laugh.

Benjamin Domenech ([email protected]), a former political appointee at the Department of Health and Human Services, is managing editor of Health Care News.