Recovering from the Stupak Stumble: The People’s House and Abortion

Chuck Donovan /

Bart Stupak

Sunday’s partisan vote for health care legislation in the House signals the likely end of longtime cross-party cooperation among Members opposed to abortion. The last-minute collapse of the Stupak 7, pro-life Democrats who voted for the Stupak-Pitts abortion funding limitation amendment on November 7, 2009, as well as for the House bill passed that same day, made the Democratic leaders’ retreat on the Hyde Amendment bicameral. It followed the defections last December of Senators Ben Nelson (D-NE) and Bob Casey (D-PA), who engineered much of the abortion language opposed by the National Right to Life Committee and other groups as “a political hoax.”

The Stupak Stumble follows the course of a long-term trajectory. For many years it has been nearly impossible for a Democrat with strong pro-life convictions to secure nomination to statewide federal office, much less the Presidency. Meanwhile, the number of pro-life Democrats in the U.S. House steadily declined for a generation, but there appeared to be a core group of more senior Members, led by Bart Stupak (D-MI) and other Midwest Democrats, that would hold out against the blandishments of the Democratic leadership. That illusion was all but shattered Sunday, as the latest in a series of piecrust promises, a Presidential executive order, was enough to cover the Stupak 7’s vote for a bill they had labeled “unacceptable” for months.

It should be noted that another 19 Democrats both opposed the health care bill and supported a last-gasp motion to recommit the bill for inclusion of the original pro-life language. These members held fast and one of them – Rep. Dan Lipinski of suburban Chicago – flipped from a “yea” last November to a “nay” now solely because of the omission of Stupak-Pitts from the final bill. If there is a base for rebuilding the Democratic tradition on the abortion issue, it will have to come from this remnant.

At a deeper level, however, Sunday’s vote marks a profound philosophical Rubicon. The Democratic majority enacted a bill that is likely, combined with future actions on the “doc fix” in Medicare and other spending drivers, to cause the federal deficit and national debt to continue rising. This disregard for the next generation is part and parcel of the obtuseness that disregards the crumbling of family indicators (an out-of-wedlock birth rate likely to pass 40% of all births in the next report from the National Center for Health Statistics and the moral basis of millions of Americans’ concerns about publicly financed abortion.

Stupak’s abandonment of those concerns may have helped advance one major piece of legislation, but it has left a field of opportunity for advocates of a unified vision of the nation’s future. That vision is one that would recognize the fundamental integrity of policies that buttress civil society and foster the personal character and individual enterprise that are a nation’s greatest resources. The advantage will go to those public officials who give more attention to the indivisibility of such virtues as thrift and fidelity and the deferred gratification they require. But to coax these virtues forth, they must first be reinvigorated in those who elect our leaders.

Passage of the Democratic leadership’s health care bill may be historic, but so also is Stupak’s Stumble. And on both of these subjects, the American people will have the last word.