As the sun sat on Capitol Hill on Saturday November 7, it appeared the House healthcare bill was not going to see the light of another day. To pass the bill, Speaker Nancy Pelosi needed the help of so-called "Blue Dog Democrats" who gained their name from the fact they represent conservative districts. Many of these democrats have resisted voting for the house version of healthcare because it would greatly expand the amount of federal funds made available to pay for abortions.
Enter Representative Bart Stupak, a Michigan Democrat who authored an amendment that would strip the healthcare bill of all federal funding for abortion. In a floor speech calling on support for his amendment Stupack said, "Let us stand together on principle - no public funding for abortions, no public funding for insurance policies that pay for abortions." The Stupack amendment passed the House with a 240 to 194 vote. Prior to the vote the US Conference of Catholic Bishops endorsed the amendment causing thousands of Catholics to flood their representatives with calls and emails urging them to vote yes. After the amendment passed Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council called the vote, "a huge pro-life victory for women, their unborn children, and families." In contrast, pro-choice advocates called it "the biggest setback to women's reproductive rights in decades." Dr. Charmaine Yoest, president of Americans United for Life called the passage of the amendment, "a step toward a future where both political parties defend life."
Let me be clear where I stand concerning abortion. I believe abortion is the taking of innocent life and I believe it should be banned unless the life of the baby places the mother's life is in serious jeopardy. Then and only then should the decision be left to the mother to decide which life to defend. I support those in public office who oppose abortion and I have never voted for a pro-choice candidate for any office.
That being said, I think it is at least possible that well-meaning prolife organizations and representatives in the House were lured into a trap set by Speaker Nancy Pelosi. The Los Angeles Times began its story on the Stupack amendment by acknowledging that, "House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is a great vote counter." Reporter Johanna Neuman went on to say, "As the healthcare vote on Saturday night demonstrated, she knew just how many votes she had to turn to win the bill. And she did it by allowing lawmakers from swing-state districts, many with strong Catholic constituencies—to first vote against insurance funding for abortion."
At least in Neuman's mind, the Stupack amendment vote had nothing to do with protecting the lives of the unborn and everything to do with giving political cover to Democrats who hail from districts populated by staunch Catholics who are politically engaged. Neuman may be right. House rules give almost omnipotent power to the Speaker to control which amendments make it to the floor for a vote. Why would Nancy Pelosi, a strident defender of abortion rights, allow this amendment to be voted on unless she knew that, A) she needed the votes of Blue Dogs who needed the political cover of a pro-life amendment in order to vote for the final bill and, B) she knew the amendment wouldn't survive in the Senate.
The first point may be self-evident in that even with the support she picked up from her own party by allowing the vote on the amendment she still needed the vote of one lone Republican to get the forty votes she needed. The second point was made on Monday when Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, chief deputy House whip said on MSNBC concerning the Stupack amendment, "I am confident that when it comes back from the conference committee that language won't be there. And I think we're all going to be working very hard, particularly the pro-choice members to make sure that's the case."
After the Senate passes their version of healthcare reform a conference committee will be formed with both Senate and House members to work out differences between the two bills. Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) serves as the co-chairman of the Congressional Pro-Choice Caucus and she is already circulating a letter with forty signatures of House Democrats who have vowed to vote against any conference report that still contains the amendment. With strong, pro-choice majorities in both the Senate and the House it will be a miracle if the Stupack amendment survives the legislative twists and turns that form the vortex of lawmaking.
The people who voted for the Stupack amendment did so in good faith. They voted for life because given the opportunity to protect the unborn they voted their conscience. I am afraid their valiant effort will go down in history as a casualty of the political games people play in Washington. How ironic that some who fight so hard for universal healthcare coverage for everyone could be so callous as to use the fate of unborn children as a chip in a high stakes political game. If the promise of life and health is precious for millions of uninsured Americans it should be a promise precious enough to be extended to millions of those yet unborn.