In defense of Bart Stupak
I don’t enjoy disagreeing with my friend Kathleen Parker, a delightful person whose column usually makes me smile, even when my views differ from hers. But I think her comments today on Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) -- she suggests he’s a “backstabber” who sold out the anti-abortion cause -- are deeply unfair to him. They represent a critique of Stupak that comes from the right wing of the pro-life movement that never wanted health-care reform to pass. She ignores the large number of pro-lifers who did not want the abortion issue to scuttle a chance of extending health coverage to 32 million of our fellow citizens.
The most vociferous critics of the anti-abortion movement think of it as an exclusively right-wing cause. That’s not true. In fact, the pro-life movement is politically diverse. It includes a large number of pro-life progressives who strongly support government programs to lift up the poor and assist a beleaguered middle class. Many in this camp are like Bart Stupak -- labor liberals for whom the cause of national health insurance has always been an essential commitment.
Stupak went as far as he possibly could on behalf of the right-to-life movement without actually derailing the health-care bill. For make no mistake: if the Senate health-care bill had not gotten through the House, the cause of health-care reform would have died right along with it.
Many of us insisted that, in any event, the Senate bill did not include federal financing of abortion. In my column last week, I noted this view has held by, among others, the Catholic Health Association and an important group of nuns. Here is what Commonweal, the staunchly pro-life and progressive Catholic magazine, said on this subject. (I cited these passages in a live chat this weekend, but they bear repeating here.)
One needs a good reason to oppose a bill that would cover 30 million uninsured Americans and greatly improve insurance for those who already have it. If the Senate bill did clearly authorize the federal government to pay for elective abortions, prolife Americans might have such a reason. To conclude the bill does this, however, requires one to believe that every ambiguity-every possible complication the bill doesn't explicitly address-is a ploy by pro-choice politicians to sneak abortion funding into the system. President Barack Obama and his party's leadership have promised the bill won't be used in this way. Their critics instruct us to presume that they're lying.
Critics also claim that the money the bill appropriates for community health centers is not subject to the Hyde Amendment. No doubt the bill would be strengthened with the addition of language that clearly imposes the Hyde rule on any federal money given to health centers. But since such money will in any case be channeled through the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), where the Hyde Amendment obtains, there is no good reason to suppose that it will be exempt from the amendment's constraints. Besides, if HHS really could spend any part of the new funding on elective abortions, it wouldn't matter that the Hyde Amendment keeps it from using the rest of its money for this purpose: as the bill's critics never tire of telling us, money is fungible-the Hyde Amendment works only if it covers everything HHS spends. It's also worth mentioning that none of the existing health centers, which provide care to one in eight children born in the United States, has ever offered abortion services.
But Stupak was still not satisfied with the Senate language. That is why he withheld support for the bill until President Obama agreed to issue an executive order to make sure that the measure would not authorize the use of federal money for abortion. It is hard to understand how the right end of the pro-life movement can dismiss an executive order. After all, it lavishly praised President Bush for his executive order limiting stem cell research.
The only people who can see Stupak as a sellout are those who were willing to see health reform die altogether. Kathleen and I, from what we have written, probably take a different view of the merits of the health-care bill that Obama signed into law. We will have plenty of time in the coming years to argue about which of us was right on the health-care issue itself. But I don’t think that difference justifies an attack on Stupak, who was prepared to enrage a majority of his Democratic colleagues to advance the pro-life cause that has been dear to him throughout his congressional career. What he did at the beginning of this battle and what he did at the end took courage.
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