Making health-care reform “abortion neutral” was never going to be easy. Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) was the first to demonstrate that it was possible, practically and politically. He also showed that a prolife politician could wield power within the Democratic Party—and under the purview of the “most radically pro-abortion president in history,” as Barack Obama is known to a certain segment of the prolife movement.
Senators Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) and Bob Casey (D-Pa.) came up with another way to exclude federal funding of abortion in their chamber’s reform bill. But at that point the Stupak Amendment took on a life of its own. Lobbying groups who hoped to stop “Obamacare” insisted that the Senate bill would be acceptable only if the House added Stupak’s language—a process that would send the bill back to the Senate, where Republicans could filibuster it to death.
Stupak expressed reservations about the Senate bill’s abortion language, as did the U.S. bishops and the National Right to Life Committee (sometimes jointly). His stubbornness led to Obama’s signing an eleventh-hour executive order clarifying that the Senate bill’s alleged ambiguities would be interpreted according to the principle embodied in the Hyde Amendment: no federal funding for elective abortions. According to Obama’s order, Hyde will indeed apply to all funding for community health centers, and existing conscience protections will be upheld.
For pursuing prolife measures within the Democratic Party, Stupak became a target of prochoicers, who accuse him of attempting to limit “women’s rights.” Now, having helped pass health-care reform, he is under attack from the Right. He has been called a coward and a traitor. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), desperate to burnish his right-wing credentials in an election year, sneered that Stupak “folded like a cardboard suit in the rain.”
In fact, Stupak has shown consistency and courage, not only in resisting the prochoice majority in his party, but also in resisting Republican efforts to use his prolife convictions to sabotage health-care reform. After the reform bill passed last month, House Republicans filed a motion to add the language of the Stupak Amendment—a last-ditch bid to return the bill to the Senate. Stupak took the floor to object that their use of his name was “nothing more than an opportunity to continue to deny 32 million Americans health care.” Republicans booed and jeered as he insisted, “It is the Democrats who have stood up for the principle of no public funding for abortions.... This motion is really to politicize life, not prioritize life.”
Stupak meant what he said all along: he wanted to extend health-care coverage without expanding direct federal funding of abortion. He succeeded, despite the best efforts of those who claimed to support him. For being that rarest of creatures—a politician who can hold firm to his principles and still seek honest compromise—he deserves prolifers’ gratitude and respect.