The Myth of the “Bipartisan Pro-Life Majority”

As the Senate health care bill, the Patient Protection and Affordable Choices Act (PPACA), moves to the floor today for what promises to be extended debate, the religious right and the Catholic Church again are flexing their collective muscles to include an abortion ban identical to the Stupak-Pitts amendment forced into the House bill. They would, once again, need Democrats to pass an amendment draconian enough for their tastes, and they are looking to Sens. Bob Casey (PA) and Ben Nelson (NE) as their chief aiders and abettors.

The religious right publicly scolded Nelson and Casey for voting, just before the Thanksgiving recess, to bring the bill to the Senate floor. Anti-choice groups are going to score that vote to begin debate on the bill as “anti-life.” Never ones to use the carrot and stick approach, organizations like the Susan B. Anthony List and Americans United for Life are all stick: “Senators should consider themselves on notice: America is still waiting for you to strike government funded abortion from this legislation,” said Marjorie Dannefelser, the SBA List’s president.

Yet their campaign to settle for nothing less than Stupak-Pitts is, as Jodi Jacobson ably chronicled at RH Reality Check, filled with misinformation. Charmaine Yoest, president of Americans United for Life, claimed, without basis, that the Senate bill would “redefine” abortion as health care. In fact, no health plan would be required to cover abortion services, and no federal funds would be used to cover them. But what is really missing from the “pro-life” crowd is that the PPACA doesn’t even provide for full coverage of vital health services for women. Those services (also absent from the House bill) include “all the elements of a standard gynecological ‘well visit,’ leaving essential care such as pelvic exams, domestic violence screening, counseling about sexually transmitted diseases, and, perhaps most startlingly, the provision of birth control off the list of basic benefits all insurers must cover,” according to Sharon Lerner, writing in The Nation.

Casey was the only Senate Democrat on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee to vote last summer against the Women’s Health Amendment, sponsored by Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), which would have provided such coverage. He was joined by Republicans, of course, and although the amendment was voted out of committee, it did not make its way into the final bill.

On the House side, Yoest lauded the Stupak-Pitts amendment in the House bill as the tangible result of a “bipartisan pro-life majority.” While Democrats should do some soul-searching about whether this is the result they intended when they recruited anti-choice candidates to win in conservative districts, the more essential question for them is whether that bipartisanship really represents America (and whether it is good for America), rather than chasing the (now not-so-holy) grail of anti-choice voters supposedly essential for election victories.

While it is still not clear what happened behind the scenes to kill the Mikulski amendment, the religious right aimed to kill it in the court of public opinion. In July, Life Site News claimed the amendment would subsidize Planned Parenthood (which, in the eyes of the religious right, only performs abortions when in fact well over 90% of its work goes to other reproductive health services). Calling the amendment the “silent FOCA” (Freedom of Choice Act), Life Site News was able to invoke two religious right bogeymen simultaneously: the evil “abortionist” Planned Parenthood, and the FOCA once lauded by President Obama and long unquestionably dead before arrival. Fear over facts.

Even though the Mikulski amendment was excised from the PPACA, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops called it “actually the worst bill we’ve seen so far on the life issues.” That’s with a prohibition on public funds paying for abortion services and no requirement for contraceptive coverage. We’ll see their reaction when Mikulski re-offers her amendment on the Senate floor, reportedly sometime today.

Casey also is reportedly working on his own amendment, which sounds a bit more like his Pregnant Women Support Act (PWSA), which is intended to encourage pregnant women to “choose life” through beefed-up social services, than like Stupak-Pitts. The Catholic bishops and other religious right ideologues support the PWSA because it provides no funding for contraception or sex education, but in the context of health care reform, have made it clear that it’s Stupak-Pitts or nothing. Casey may be trying to save face with mainstream Democratic voters by not going the full Stupak-Pitts. But hiding behind the “pro-life” moniker while denying women essential health services — all to placate religious dogma that even most Catholics reject — may represent some kind of bipartisanship, but certainly not a majority.