The Pro-Life Democrat's Fateful Choice

The conventional wisdom among pro-lifers is that by abandoning his demand that taxpayer funding of abortion be excluded from the health care bill, Bart Stupak reinforces the “myth” of the pro-life Democrat.

But that’s not quite right. Pro-life Democrats still exist. What the health care debate did was to put pro-life Democrats on notice that their political lives will be aborted if they seek to ascend the party hierarchy. Prominent pro-life Democrats are nonexistent because, sooner or later, the pro-life principle collides with a policy agenda that abides no dissent. 

Stupak would like us to believe that he has remained true to his pro-life principles. But to understand what separated Stupak’s pro-life amendment to the healthcare reform bill that passed in November from his Executive Order deal that allowed the bill to finally pass last week, one need only juxtapose the reactions of abortion activists to each.

After the pro-life Stupak amendment passed, abortion activists picketed Democratic offices. The liberal Democracy for America sent wire hangers to abortion-rights-supporting House Democrats who voted for Stupak. Democratic Rep. Diana DeGette organized dozens of liberals who threatened to vote against the bill if the Stupak language wasn’t removed.

Abortion leaders Kate Michelman and Francis Kissling threatened that if Democrats didn’t omit the Stupak language, “they will face an uncompromising effort by Democratic women to defeat them, regardless of the cost to the party’s precious majority.”

After Stupak agreed to vote for health care reform without an abortion amendment in exchange for the president’s promise to sign an Executive Order purportedly keeping abortion out of the bill, abortion leaders were singing a much different tune. 

Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards said she was “extremely pleased” that the “Stupak abortion ban” did not find its way into the bill. She also said that the healthcare bill was “a huge victory for women’s health,” while the Executive Order was nothing more than a “symbolic gesture.”

Stupak insists there’s no effective difference between the two. But if that were true, every abortion rights group in America would be slamming the administration for abandoning women. Instead they are jubilant.

And they should be. The Stupak amendment would have prohibited individuals from using government subsidies to buy insurance plans that cover abortion, and prevented a government-run plan from carrying abortion coverage except rare cases. The amendment was essentially an extension of the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits most federal tax dollars from paying for abortions in Medicaid.

The Executive Order, on the other hand, is meaningless because executive orders cannot override legislative language.

Stupak’s capitulation underscores that true pro-life Democrats are an endangered species. Democrats identified in the media as “pro-life” usually score worse than self-described pro-choice Republicans on the National Right to Life legislative voting scorecard.

Most of the Democrats regularly referred to as “strongly anti-abortion,” such as Stupak and Senators Ben Nelson and Bob Casey, Jr., ended up voting for a health care reform bill that opens the door to something—the public funding of abortion—that three out of four Americans reject.

But there are many pro-life Democratic voters and pro-life Democratic politicians at the local and state levels. Even a number of pro-life Democrats in Congress stayed strong and voted against the health care bill with little fanfare.

By giving in, Stupak underscored how difficult it is to be a prominent, national Democrat and retain your pro-life principles. You can only get so far in politics as a pro-life Democrat. That’s why Democratic leaders like Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Ted Kennedy, Jesse Jackson, Dennis Kucinich, Dick Durbin, Harry Reid  and others have transformed from pro-life to pro-abortion when they moved to national politics, ran for president or moved into leadership roles within the party.

There’s a reason why you probably cannot name a prominent pro-life Democrat. Every pro-life Democrat with ambitions for higher office at some point is faced with a fateful choice between principle and party. And it is the rare pro-life Democrat who places the former over the latter. Those who do are rarely heard from again.

Harold Ford used to be one of those pro-life Democratic congressmen. He regularly referred to himself as such when he was a congressman in conservative Tennessee. Then during his aborted run for a Senate seat in liberal New York, Ford suddenly rejected the label. He told the New York Times, “To describe me as pro-life is just wrong.”

Given how quickly the likes of Ford and other ambitious Democrats have jettisoned their pro-life principles, I was somewhat surprised that Stupak stayed strong for so long. He endured the scorn of his party’s leadership and of an abortion lobby that had tapped a pro-abortion primary challenger to run against him this November. After months of fighting his party, Stupak said that the healthcare fight had been “like a living hell.”

But let’s not feel sorry for Stupak. Now that he’s abandoned his pro-life principles, he can safely seek higher office with backing from his party’s leadership.

I don’t doubt that to be a pro-life Democrat in the age of Obama is “like a living hell.” But the real living hell will be endured by American taxpayers forced to underwrite the intentional slaughter of innocent human life.