A coalition of prolife Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives, led by Michigan Rep. Bart Stupak, was in the spotlight of the eleventh hour as Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) scrambled to find the votes to achieve passage of the Senate version of President Obama’s national health care reform.
On the morning of the vote, leadership staffers on both sides of the aisle told Health Care News Pelosi had at best a one- or two-vote margin on the legislation—a dangerous situation, as every vote could be described in subsequent reports and campaign ads as the deciding vote on the matter. As previously reported at healthpolicy-news.org, Pelosi had promised rhe abortion group Planned Parenthood in closed-door meetings that she would not allow a repeat of last fall’s scenario in which Stupak’s bipartisan amendment banning taxpayer funding for abortions was added on the floor.
Pelosi turned to the White House for aid, and found it in the form of a White House Executive Order reiterating the Senate bill’s language prohibitions on the use of taxpayer funding. Stupak, in an emotional press conference that afternoon, announced the deal and his switch from no to yes.
With his pro-life group of roughly a half-dozen Democrats safely in hand, Pelosi could be confident she had the votes, ultimately achieving a 219-212 margin.
Executive Order Called Insufficient
Prolife groups called this a profound act of betrayal by Stupak and his fellow prolife Democrats.
William Saunders, a prominent Washington, DC attorney for several prolife organizations, says the executive order cannot ensure a ban on funding.
“An executive order can’t change legislation; all it can do is interpret the legislation. There are certain provisions in any bill that cannot be affected or changed by executive order,” Saunders said. “One of the most significant ones is the section regarding taxpayer funding of abortions, which was opposed by prolife Democrats all along but is not addressed in the executive order and indeed cannot be.”
‘Profoundly Disappointed’ in Stupak
In an interview with Health Care News in January, Stupak had maintained he would “hold firm” on the contentious issue of abortion funding.
“We are going to hold firm and make sure the [funding ban] language stays when this legislation comes back to us. We will not vote for this bill if that language is not there,” Stupak said at the time.
Stupak had been a prominent Democrat hero for prolife groups and was scheduled to receive a “courage award” from the prolife Susan B. Anthony List the week after the vote occurred. After his announcement on the afternoon before the vote, the group rescinded the award.
Charmaine Yoest, president and CEO of Americans United for Life Action, said many groups were “profoundly disappointed” in Stupak.
“Mr. Stupak’s choice to succumb to intense pressure resulted in his endorsement of a charade that does not even begin to address the anti-life provisions in this legislation,” Yoest said. “The American people do not support taxpayer funding of abortion, and Speaker Pelosi and the President undermined representative democracy by working to pass this legislation with this unprecedented contortion of the legislative process.”
Stupak Fires Back
For his part, Stupak responded to these criticisms by consistently claiming the executive order would be sufficient to maintain the status quo. He also adopted the idea that the Senate bill’s approach to “segregating funds” should satisfy moral qualms in defending a recent vote on funding Planned Parenthood.
“Planned Parenthood does not do abortions … in my district. Planned Parenthood has a number of clinics in my district that provide health care for my people,” Stupak told the Washington Times in a March 22 interview. “Also on Planned Parenthood, there is a segregation of funds that go with it.”
Saunders rejects the idea of fund segregation, and says the health care reform legislation needed something closer to the late Rep. Henry Hyde’s (R-IL) traditionally renewed amendment specifically banning taxpayer funding of abortions.
“The Hyde amendment or something like it was necessary as an addition to this bill, and an executive order just is not sufficient as a substitute,” Saunders said.
Benjamin Domenech ([email protected]) is managing editor of Health Care News.