Politics, Not Religion, At Heart of Health Care Reform Wrangle on Abortion

Update: By a 240-194 margin the House voted in favor of the anti-choice Stupak Amendment. Shortly thereafter the House passed the health care bill by a vote of 220-215 with a single Republican joining 219 Democrats. For more, visit the RD blog.—ed.

As the House of Representatives health care reform bill edges closer to a vote, anti-choice Democrats continue their threats to hijack the bill over abortion funding. These members, and their supporters, are the very constituency Democrats have been urged to placate on abortion-related issues. That strategy, misguided to begin with, seems even more so as the “pro-life” Democrats are trying to bring down their own party’s signature legislative initiative.

As part of Democrats’ re-tooling in the post-“values voters” election of 2004, they tried to be more “friendly” to religion. A big part of that strategy included making anti-choice Democrats feel more “welcome” in the party by being less doctrinaire on choice, and acknowledging the claimed heartfelt religious belief at the core of these Democrats’ position.

But now some of these Democrats, who claim to be pro-life, are playing politics with health care reform, aligning themselves more closely with the anti-choice hard right and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) than their own party. They insist that efforts to ensure that no public funds will be used to cover abortion services are insufficient. This game-playing is not about public funding of abortion, already outlawed in the Hyde Amendment (which bars federal funding from being used to pay for abortions for low-income women under Medicaid and other programs). Indeed, the House bill already incorporates Hyde through its own amendment authored by pro-choice California Democrat, Rep. Lois Capps.

Instead, these Democrats, led by Rep. Bart Stupak of Michigan, are pushing for an amendment to restrict womens’ access to abortion. And that’s not theology, it’s politics.

Even so, says Cecile Richards, president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, those attempting to torpedo health care reform over the abortion issue do not represent mainstream religious views. “Pro-choice religious groups and leaders are very mainstream. They are supporting health care reform in the broadest framework,” she said in an interview with RD.

While the USCCB has taken a hard line on opposing health care reform (which it claims to support) if abortion isn’t sufficiently restricted, it does not represent the views of most Catholics. A recent poll commissioned by Catholics for Choice found that 68% of Catholics disapproved of the Bishops’ opposition to health care reform that includes abortion coverage; 56% believed the Bishops shouldn’t even be taking a position on the health care reform legislation. The views of the country’s 65 million Catholics, said Jon O’Brien, the group’s president, “are not represented by 350 members of the USCCB.”

Other pro-choice religious leaders are similarly dismayed. Rev. Debra Haffner, president of the Religious Institute on Sexual Morality, Justice, and Healing, reacting to efforts to restrict abortion coverage in health care reform, wrote on her blog, “It is profoundly unjust when the private moral choices of women… are subject to majority vote and political trading. There can be no common ground when votes are allowed to strip people of their existing rights.”

Planned Parenthood, said Richards, wants the Hyde Amendment repealed because low-income women should have equal access to abortion services. But, she added, “we’re not taking the position that health care reform is the place to relitigate that issue… unfortunately a handful of people would rather bring down health care reform in its entirety than provide the coverage women already have.”

Indeed, the pro-choice camp has compromised in order to make the bill more palatable to the anti-choice camp, which is not meeting them in the middle. “This is a hard time for us in the pro-choice community,” said O’Brien. “We’ve been straightforward and reasonable.” The House bill “is not a win for women. But it’s not a loss for the poor, marginalized, and dispossessed. We see it as a compromise.”

To further attempt to placate the anti-choice Democrats, Rep. Brad Ellsworth, Democrat of Indiana, has proposed an amendment that would make abortion funding restrictions more explicit than Capps. Pro-choice Democrats and Planned Parenthood are, as Richards put it, “not thrilled with” that language, but “my obligation as a leader of Planned Parenthood is to represent the interests of women and families who have no health care coverage at all.” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told reporters yesterday that the House leadership had not yet made a decision on whether to permit either Ellsworth’s or Stupak’s amendment. Anti-choice hardliners call it Ellsworth’s plan a “money laundering scheme,” and insist on the purity of Stupak’s amendment.

If the “pro-life” Democrats fear retribution at the polls for voting for a “pro-abortion” health care reform bill, they have their allies on the hard right to thank for pushing the false storyline that the health care reform bill would “mandate” abortion. Democrats for Life of America is part of the Stop the Abortion Mandate coalition, which in a conference call this week urged supporters to call their member of Congress to tell them, in the words of Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ), “to settle for nothing less than the Stupak amendment.”

But why should Democrats be listening to Smith? His party is out to sink the health care reform bill regardless of abortion coverage.

According to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life’s religious landscape survey, 18% of Michiganders believe abortion should be legal in all cases; 35% believe it should be legal in most cases. Fourteen percent believe it should be illegal in all cases, and 27% believe it should be illegal in most cases. (Indiana, Ellsworth’s home state, trends more anti-choice.) Stupak’s district might be more conservative than the Michigan-wide numbers reflect (district-by-district breakdowns were not available) but if he and other pro-life Democrats fear a voter backlash, they need to ask themselves whether they actually helped fuel a grasstops, rather than a grassroots, fire by aiding in the promotion of the Stop the Abortion Mandate mobilizing effort.

O’Brien believes the pro-life Democrats misread the electorate. “I don’t think it’s resonating with people out there,” he said. “This is not about advocacy groups on K Street. This is really about what people access in their everyday lives.”

In addition to ignoring the views of voters generally, the Stupak supporters overlook an increasingly important demographic: Latinos. In the Catholics for Choice poll, Latinos were even more progressive than other Catholics on the abortion question. Silvia Henriquez, executive director of the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health, told RD:

Latinas are among the poorest in this country, and tend to lack access to health insurance in higher numbers than other groups. The lessons learned from the last three decades of misguided federal policy on abortion is that creating a two-tier system of access to health care is unfair, punitive, and harmful.

About the Stupak and Ellsworth effort, she added:

At a time of economic crisis and while the nation is struggling to reform its broken health care system, Congress continues to substitute ideology for reasonable health care policy at the expense of women and families. Amendments, such as those proposed by Representatives Ellsworth and Stupak, only serve to marginalize abortion services and ignore reality by treating abortion care as a moral debate instead of a health care need.

Despite the compromises meant to appease them, the hardcore anti-choice groups are fearmongering that the House bill will “mandate” or increase the number of abortions. On the Stop the Abortion Mandate conference call, Charmaine Yoest, head of Americans United for Life (and former staffer at the Family Research Council and advisor to Mike Huckabee’s 2008 presidential campaign) insisted that the “House bill does mandate abortion… the very simple truth is this is a huge expansion of abortion funding and coverage that changes the way we’ve approached abortion coverage in this country for 30 years.”

“Don’t be fooled,” she added, by “accounting gimmicks… The government will be getting into the abortion business like it never has before.”

Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List, whose most recent achievement was supporting the losing candidacy of Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman in the special congressional election in New York, declared the House bill “would undo [Hyde’s] life work… you and I would be complicit in every single abortion… make no mistake, this is the most important pro-life vote of the year.”

Kristen Day, executive director of Democrats for Life of America, called Stupak a “hero” for demanding the inclusion of “clear and concise language to ensure that abortion funding will not be included in the bill.” Day pledged that pro-life Democrats would vote against the bill if the abortion funding was not taken out per Stupak’s language.

“That [abortion] seems to be all he [Stupak] cares about,” said Richards. “It’s unfortunate that at the advent of this enormously important plan that he would choose this time to relitigate an issue that is frankly settled in this country, that women have access to abortion coverage. It’s been legal since Roe, and why he would choose health care reform as an opening to relitigate this issue is beyond me.”

“The American people will not forgive them if they do this,” said O’Brien. “This will be remembered. If they decide to burn health care, and burn the chances of so many of the poor in this country, I think they’ll pay a horrible price for it in the future.”

Sarah Posner, author of God’s Profits: Faith, Fraud, and the Republican Crusade for Values Voters, covers politics and religion. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Guardian, The Atlantic, The American ProspectThe NationSalon, and other publications. Follow her on TwitterRSS feed Email