Stupak Forming Fault Lines in Left-Leaning Faith Groups?

Since the Stupak-Pitts amendment passed the House of Representatives and became part of the Affordable Health Care for America Act, all attention has been focused on how the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) exerted eleventh-hour pressure on the House Democratic leadership. The USCCB’s political clout over a minority of House Democrats, as it was perceived by the House leadership, forced their hand to allow the restrictive amendment to ensure passage of the final bill.

As a coalition of hard-right anti-choice groups (known as Stop the Abortion Mandate) worked with the USCCB and Democrats for Life of America to push Stupak over the finish line, decisions made months earlier by pro-reform faith coalitions not to address the abortion question left them flat-footed.

Leading pro-choice, pro-reform religious groups are now vowing that history will not repeat itself in the Senate. The Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, Catholics for Choice, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the National Council of Jewish Women, leaders from the United Methodist Church, the United Church of Christ, and others are calling for full coverage of abortion access in health care reform and to “ensure the final health care reform bill respects diverse religious beliefs,” according to a press release from the RCRC.

The sequence of events leading up to the Stupak amendment demonstrates the propensity for advocates of “common ground” to sweep essential debates on issues like abortion under the rug. The outcome portends fissures, not just for faith groups’ position on abortion funding in health care reform, but for other so-called “common ground” initiatives on abortion.

In the interest of promoting the passage of a health care reform bill, pro-reform faith groups had months ago agreed to disagree on the abortion funding question. That decision undermined their ability to use the force and authority of a faith coalition to lobby against the Stupak amendment in the final hours of legislative negotiations.

The result: a gaping opening for anti-choice forces to appear more unified and insistent to House leadership that they held the “faith” card.

The White House reached out to faith groups over the summer in an effort to mobilize them to support health care reform—but the efforts ignored the details of abortion funding.

Faithful Reform in Health Care, an interfaith coalition, has been advocating for health care reform for years. Even though some of its member groups are in favor of legal abortion and covering abortion in health care, and have since condemned Stupak, the coalition has never taken a position on abortion funding. That stance remains unchanged post-Stupak, though some member organizations are individually opposing it.

In June, Faithful Reform members were invited to meet with senior White House staff and Congressional leadership to rally faith communities around health care reform and in particular a “robust public option,” according to Barbara Baylor, Minister for Health Care Justice in the United Church of Christ. Abortion coverage was not discussed at that June meeting, even though the religious right was already complaining about what it called the “abortion mandate.”

But Faithful Reform was critical of the White House over the weakening of the public option as legislative negotiations proceeded.

Another faith coalition took center stage as the health care debate heated up later in the summer, one that did not take a position on either the public option or abortion. In August, Faith in Public Life (FPL), which has close ties to the White House, took the lead in organizing a teleconference with the president and White House advisers, urging faith groups to rally their troops to support health care reform. By that time, the Capps amendment—which would have required insurance companies to segregate public and private funds, essentially keeping the status quo on the government not funding abortions—was already included in the House bill that came out of the Energy and Commerce Committee. It was a fix that pro-choice religious groups reluctantly agreed to, but that anti-choice groups were still dissatisfied with. (For a full discussion and comparison of the Capps and Stupak amendments, read this analysis by the Center for American Progress’ Jessica Arons.)

Rabbi David Saperstein, director and counsel to the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism (which strongly opposes the Stupak amendment), said his understanding was that a condition of participating in that teleconference was agreeing that Capps was a compromise that everyone could live with. The overall tenor of the Faith for Health Web site and the 40 Days for Health campaign that FPL coordinated was passage of health care—without discussing abortion funding.

The Rev. Jennifer Butler, FPL’s executive director, said there was no “litmus test” for participating in the call, but described Saperstein’s understanding as keeping with the “spirit” of the endeavor. She added that faith groups are focused on affordability as the central feature of any reform bill, and that faith groups are “accustomed to diversity.”

FPL and other sponsors of the teleconference, Sojourners and Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, have been advocates for “common ground” proposals to reduce abortion.

Sojourners president Jim Wallis, who serves on the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships Advisory Council, claimed to speak for the “faith community” when he wrote in September, “President Barack Obama made the commitments that a broad coalition in the faith community had asked for—reform as a moral issue, affordable coverage for all, and no federal funding of abortion.”

But many in the so-called “faith community” had not asked for no federal funding for abortion—they had merely reluctantly acquiesced to the Capps amendment as a compromise to move the bill forward. In fact, the RCRC advocated for coverage of abortion services in health care.

“I’ve never experienced Jim Wallis as someone who is going to be advocating for abortion coverage in health care,” said the Rev. Loey Powell, Team Leader in Justice and Witness Ministries in the United Church of Christ, speaking as an individual and not on behalf of the UCC. “He’s happy to let whomever try to cut out abortion and not have anything to say about it.”

Burns Strider, a political consultant and strategist at the Eleison Group, acting as a spokesperson for Sojourners (his firm’s principal client) insisted that Wallis “maintained a principle, with the stated belief that we can’t let this issue derail health care reform. We’ve got to find the common ground so we can pass health care reform. I think he’s right about that.”

Wallis publicly stated many times that he opposed federal funding for abortion in health care reform, but never specified what mechanism would accomplish that to his satisfaction. Strider admitted Wallis never took a position on any particular amendment, but Sojourners did send an action alert to supporters on Friday, November 6—before the Stupak amendment was in the bill—urging them to call on their representatives to pass it.

Strider said he could not answer whether Wallis believes Stupak went too far, saying only, “he’s maintained the moral voice that all of us need to find common ground that works for everybody,” and remains focused, like Strider himself, on getting reform passed. Strider’s firm nonetheless also represents four Democrats—Bobby Bright, Travis Childers, Parker Griffith, and Heath Shuler—who voted for the Stupak amendment and then against the final bill. Strider is considered one of the architects of the Demoratic Party’s faith outreach, having served as an aide on that issue to then-Minority Leader Pelosi and then-presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. According to the client list on its web site, Eleison Group has also represented FPL.*

Secular pro-choice groups have expressed shock that Stupak’s amendment made it in at the last minute. But to Butler, it was no surprise. “We saw the problem coming,” she told RD. “Capps wasn’t working as a compromise.”

Stupak and his group of 40 “felt dissed,” said Butler, but because FPL doesn’t lobby on the Hill, she claimed, “we don’t get active in this issue.” But, she added, “it impacts us. We are trying to build as broad a coalition as we can. We’re worried bystanders.”

Butler said she was “concerned” because she didn’t hear people on the Hill saying they knew definitively that they had the votes to pass the bill without Stupak. “When I pushed hard, I was shocked people didn’t have the answers.”

Kristen Day, executive director of Democrats for Life of America (DLFA) said that her group, like the USCCB, continued to push back in the week leading up to the final vote, opposing a compromise offered by Rep. Brad Ellsworth (D-IN). “Ellsworth is a great pro-life Congressman. He offered his amendment as a way to try to keep the conversation going,” said Day. But, she added, “when we saw the language, we weren’t happy with it.” Stupak serves on the federal advisory board of DFLA, which also has a political action committee that supports anti-choice Democrats.

Ellsworth, according to Day, “listened to us and we talked… We were very happy he worked with us to make sure the Stupak amendment passed.” DFLA was “all along supporting Stupak,” said Day, and was “working as a coalition [of anti-choice Democrats] to make sure there wasn’t public funding of abortion.” She said DFLA “shares the same views as the USCCB” but that it is not a Catholic organization.

Although DFLA played a key role in assembling the anti-choice Democrats to hold the bill hostage over abortion, tax filings and campaign finance disclosures show DFLA’s advocacy arm operates on a budget of less than $100,000 a year. Its PAC raised less than $6,000 in the last election cycle, $5,000 of that coming from the advocacy arm’s board president, Janet Robert.

Earlier this year, DFLA removed Rep. Tim Ryan (D-OH) from its board over his co-sponsorship of a bill to reduce the number of abortions that included provisions for contraception. Ryan called the group “fringe” for its opposition to contraception; Day maintained that DFLA does not oppose contraception, but “we don’t take a position on it.”

DFLA participated in Stop the Abortion Mandate (STAM) opposition to the Capps amendment throughout the summer and fall, appearing in a video with representatives from Focus on the Family, the Family Research Council, Concerned Women for America, and other religious right groups, and joining in a press conference with Chris Smith (R-NJ) and Joe Pitts (R-PA), two of the most vociferous opponents of abortion rights in the House. On the Monday before the vote, DFLA participated in a STAM conference call with an array of religious right groups and the USCCB, who all called on supporters to push for nothing short of the restrictions Stupak was proposing. Day called Stupak a “hero” and pledged that pro-life Democrats would vote against the bill if his amendment wasn’t included.

On the religious pro-choice side, “our position, right up to vote, we were advocating for no further restrictions on access to abortion,” said Linda Bales Todd, director of the Louise and Hugh Moore Population Project for the United Methodist Church’s General Board of Church and Society. “We were willing to compromise and leave Hyde [as in the Capps amendment], but we didn’t want them to go any further. That’s where we were.”

“Up until late Friday, we were under impression that the rule wasn’t going to allow a vote on Stupak,” said a person with knowledge of the legislative activities but not authorized to speak on the record. A coalition of religious groups had prepared a letter in support of a rule that Pelosi was proposing that would have barred a vote on the Stupak amendment. But when that compromise fell apart late Friday, there was no time to prepare a coalition letter opposing Stupak.

“We really thought that it was an abortion-neutral bill that people would back,” this person said. “Many anti-choice Democrats would have been satisfied with Capps.”

Others saw it differently. “I was frustrated there wasn’t more done to work out a solution ahead of time,” said Butler, maintaining, “[FPL is] not in a position to do that.”

The UCC’s Powell believes the religious pro-choice perspective has been overlooked in a quest for common ground in reproductive health policy generally and in health care reform. “There is a growing number of us in religious communities who are pro-choice who… have found that there really is not common ground on issues like abortion with some people who say they are searching for common ground.”

But the notion that “people of faith” uniformly oppose sexual justice still animates political decisions. “I think some folks [on the Hill] are still surprised to know that there are faith voices that support a woman’s right to choose and LGBT equality,” said Rob Keithan, director of the Washington Office for Advocacy of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations.

The Rev. Carlton Veazey, president of the RCRC, told RD last week, “My concern also is the Congress is trending toward a dangerous precedent, taking one ideology over another… We need to burst [Congress’] bubble. It’s a perception that the bishops carry that kind of power.”

Powell added that elected officials need to hear that perspective. “When I have had conversations with elected officials, and say, we support a woman’s right to choose, we support access to abortion, and I am a person of faith, they are extremely thankful to hear that. They say we need to hear more from your constituents and people like you.”


*This passage has been modified slightly to more accurately represent the relationship between Eleison and FPL.