Few issues are as contentious as the abortion issue. Since 1976, the Democratic Party Platform has been pro-choice, while the Republican Party Platform has been pro-life. The polling on abortion has been remarkably stable over the last 30 years (General Social Survey 1972/1977-2008 A, B, C) and a majority of the American public tilts toward the Democratic Party’s positioning on the issue. However, and this point is important, abortion opponents have been more outspoken – and dare one say better organized – than the pro-choice movement since the legalization of abortion with Roe v. Wade in 1973. The Republican Party can advocate a strict pro-life stance on abortion, even though a majority of Americans are opposed to such a position, because people with passionate pro-life views are generally more politically active than people with passionate pro-choice views (Strickler & Danigelis 2002: 200). In short, the GOP has more to gain on opposing abortion, than they have on supporting its legality.
This political backdrop ensures the metronomic regularity in which the abortion issue enters the political debate. The Democratic pro-choice and Republican pro-life pattern hinted at above is true on the level of the party platforms, but if you enter either of the big tents, you’ll find pro-life Democrats and pro-choice Republicans. You’ll bump into Representative Bart Stupak of Michigan in the Democratic tent, and Maine Senators Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins in the Republican tent.
During the prolonged health care debate, Representative Bart Stupak has skillfully extended his 15 minutes of fame into more than four months. Stupak became a household name in the political world when he led a group of conservative House Democrats in demanding a strict provision against public funding for abortions in the House’s health care bill. In order to meet the threshold needed to pass the bill in the House back in November, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) had to include what became known as the Stupak-Pitts Amendment. The amendment was almost identical to the one advocated by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) in the closing days of the debate. The purpose of the amendment was, in Stupak’s own words:
It applies current law (the Hyde Amendment), which bars federal funding for abortion except in the case of rape, incest or life of the mother, to the health care reform bill. The Hyde Amendment has been the law of the land on federal funding of abortion since 1977 and applies to all other federally-funded health care programs such as Medicare, Medicaid, the VA and the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program (FEHBP). My amendment is not new federal abortion policy but continues current law. My amendment has no impact on those individuals with private insurance who do not receive affordability credits and in no way prohibits any individual from purchasing a supplemental abortion coverage policy. Health insurance companies can still offer policies that cover abortion; insurance companies just can’t sell those policies to individuals using affordability credits to pay for the policy.
In the Senate, however, Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and abortion opponent Senator Ben Nelson (D-NE) ended up with a similar, but differently voiced provision. This meant that the abortion provisions in the two bills would have to be sorted out in order for health care reform to become the law of the land. The Democrats faced a steeper climb to reform when Scott Brown won a surprising victory in the special election for Senator Kennedy’s vacant seat in the Senate (which Brown skillfully framed as “the people’s seat”). As a consequence, the Democrats lost their super majority of 60 votes, and they could no longer override Republican filibusters. Thus, the House would have to pass the Senate bill as it was written, because if the House changed anything in the Senate bill, it would need to go back to the Senate, where it would die on the floor due to Republican filibusters.
The brouhaha that followed, and which culminated on Sunday March 21, thrilled pundits and opponents of the bill, and added a few grey hairs to President Obama’s scalp. In the end, Representative Stupak reached a deal with the President, who agreed to sign an executive order in line with Stupak’s concerns. Following the agreement with the White House, Stupak held a highly anticipated news conference, in which he stated that he would support the bill on the grounds that:
The picture above is of PolitiFact’s (Truth-O-Meter) ruling on Stupak’s comment during the press conference. The St-Petersburg Times’ PolitiFact won the 2009 Pulitzer prize, and it is the most prominent among the fact checking sites, along with FactCheck.org. The ruling in question was based on the following considerations:
First of all, due to the Hyde Amendment – which must be renewed every year – ”abortion services are not provided in health care plans offered to federal employees and for active and retired military.” Because the health care reform bill portrays an exchange including private companies, abortion opponents began asking: ”Should private companies be allowed to offer abortion coverage (as most already do)? And what if the people buying policies are getting government subsidies to buy insurance?”
The Senate’s response:
The … language on abortion … would allow companies in the exchange to offer abortion services, even to people who get federal subsidies. But Nelson inserted measures to ensure abortion services would be paid through patient premiums, not federal subsidies. In order to accomplish that, the Senate bill requires that anyone who selects a plan that covers abortion must pay $1 a month toward a segregated fund that would pay for abortion services. One plan in every state exchange must offer coverage that does not include abortions, so there would be an option for those who morally object to $1 of their premiums going toward abortion services. Legislators supporting the bill — along with President Obama — insist that segregation of funds stays true to the Hyde Amendment restriction on federal funds for abortions.
The Senate bill’s provision on abortion was met with criticism from both sides. NARAL Pro Choice America called the provision “unacceptable bureaucratic stigmatization (that) could cause insurance carriers to drop abortion coverage, even though more than 85 percent of private plans currently cover this care for women.” The National Right to Life Committee (NRLC) and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) (which was instrumental in the creation of NRLC in 1974) argued that “if you send federal subsidies to a person who then chooses a plan that cover abortions, that’s federal funding of abortion”, and branded the plan as “nothing more than a bookkeeping scheme.”
Representative Stupak held the same position as NRLC and USCCB up until Sunday morning (March 21, 2010), when President Obama promised to sign an Executive Order reinforcing the language and intent of the Hyde Amendment. Although the Senate bill already included restrictions that would accomplish that federal funds didn’t go towards funding abortion, the executive order “went one step further” by “putting the president’s weight behind specific measures to ensure that funds are properly segregated.”
(Official White House photo by Pete Souza – Stupak stands to the left of Obama).
PolitiFact states that the executive order “mostly restates and reinforces the intent of the Senate bill” and that “it doesn’t fundamentally change the fact that people getting government subsidies for health care will be able to buy a policy on the exchange that covers abortions.”
Bottom line I:
Stupak’s issue all along was that if federal subsidies went to someone who could then choose a plan that covers abortions, that was federal funding for abortion. And that hasn’t changed. The president’s order spells out safeguards to ensure the funds are segregated. But if you thought that was a bookkeeping trick before, there’s nothing in the executive order that would change your mind.
Bottom line II:
The Senate bill states very clearly that public funding through tax credits and government subsidies for elective abortion services offered in the exchange is prohibited. But more than that, the bill sets up a mechanism to ensure that abortion services offered in the exchange are paid entirely from patient premiums, premiums paid by people who have chosen a private plan that covers abortion. The executive order puts the weight of the president’s word behind providing a way to ensure two checks go to insurers every month, so that abortion dollars and federal dollars are not co-mingled.
Bottom line III:
Since approximately 85 percent of the current private health insurance plans cover abortion, abortion opponents unwilling to let $1 of their money go to abortion coverage effectively have fewer available options to choose between. I’m surprised abortion opponents haven’t focused more of their energy on this point.
In the end, how did Stupak describe his own descision to support the Senate bill?
This Executive Order has the full force and effect of law and makes very clear that current law of no public funding for abortion applies to the new health care reform legislation. I have said from the start that my goal was to see health care pass while maintaining the principle of the sanctity of life. The president’s Executive Order upholds this principle that federal funds will not be used to subsidize abortion coverage. … This is an excellent Executive Order and a strong compliment to the health care reform legislation that was signed into law by President Obama Tuesday afternoon. I and other pro-life Democrats are pleased that we were able to uphold this important principle and vote for a health care bill that is pro-life at every stage of life.
On the floor of the House, Stupak stated that:
It is the Democrats who, through the president’s executive order, ensure that the sanctity of life is protected.
After casting his “yae”-vote together with 218 other Democrats, Stupak’s days as the pro-life movement’s hero came to an abrupt end. Congressman Randy Neugebauer (R-TX) yelled “it’s a baby killer” during Stupak’s speech on the House floor prior to the vote on the bill, and Stupak has received several death threats following his vote (check out this CBS-clip of some of the more disturbing messages left on Stupak’s answering machine). Some abortion opponents have apparently forgotten the essence of the “pro-life” mantra.
Postscript I: In spite of PolitiFact’s ruling on the matter, and the arguments laid out above, the pro-life website LifeNews.com still argues that the Senate bill includes federal funding of abortion. In short, this controversy won’t die.
Update, March 29: Congressman Dan Lipinski (D-IL) was a member of the original Stupak dozen, but decided to split with Stupak when he reached his deal with Obama. LifeNews.com quotes from an interview with Lipinski published in the Chicago Tribune:
“People have asked me, ‘If it was good enough for Stupak, why wasn’t it good enough for you?'” Lipinski said. “The executive order most likely will be overturned by the federal courts. The order does not trump the law.”
In other words, the issue at hand isn’t the content of the executive order, but whether or not it will be overturned by the federal courts. True to the paranoid style, President Obama can’t be trusted. Ironically, when Presidents Reagan, Bush 41 and Bush 43 signed Executive Orders to please the pro-life movement, no one voiced similar concerns. Oh no, those Executive Orders were blessings in the skies, but Obama’s Executive Order is bound to be a political trick in disguise.
Update, April 9: Congressman Bart Stupak won’t be seeking reelection.