The Lives and Improbable Works of the Pro-Life Democrats Print
By Hadley Arkes   
Monday, 26 October 2009

Who would have imagined, at the beginning of the year, that we would find ourselves, in the fall, at a moment of desperation for a new administration of the far Left, supported by heavy congressional majorities? But here we are, with the Democratic Congress trying to convert medical care into a sprawling new public utility, yet snared in the coils of its complexities and contradictions. Still, the Democratic leadership presses on, determined to pass something. The media have not exactly caught on, but the thing that stands in the way at this moment is the issue of abortion and the strategic place held by that improbable crew, the pro-life Democrats.

Bart Stupak from upper Michigan, still young after nine-terms in Congress, has provided the leadership for pro-life and Blue Dog Democrats. They have been determined to keep the funding of abortion out of any scheme of nationally managed health care. For thirty years, the Hyde Amendment has kept the federal government from funding most abortions. But not all funds from the federal government are covered by the Hyde Amendment. The new bill would open new streams of funding, along with subsidies for private plans that cover abortion.

The pro-lifers in Congress have offered amendments in committee to provide, explicitly, that abortion will not be covered in any part of a new scheme of medical care. But every one of those amendments has been voted down. The question now is whether the Democratic leadership in the House will permit a stand-alone amendment to bar that funding. The Rules Committee in the House has refused to allow such an amendment, for they know that the support for abortion would not survive a vote of that kind. But Bart Stupak claims that he has “about forty” votes now among the Democrats to oppose the entire bill on health care if the leadership does not allow that vote on abortion.

A recent Rasmussen poll found that only 13 percent of the public thought that medical insurance funded or subsidized by the national government should cover abortion. Forty-eight percent were opposed. But it was even more revealing that many people who are pro-choice have been unwilling to pay for abortions, as a public responsibility. And so, in Rasmussen’s survey, 67 percent of the public were opposed to requiring people to pay for abortions with their taxes. After all, if abortion is a “private choice,” why should it be regarded as a “public good,” supported by funds drawn by law from people who regard the surgery as repugnant?

But the sentiments of the public here will be no more decisive for the Congressional leadership than the opposition that has already set in against the scheme to have the government take over the direction and control of medical care. What the media have not understood is that the removal of abortion could doom the whole bill. For even they seem not to have grasped the truth that dare not speak its name: that the paramount, defining issue for the Democrats now – the issue that gives scale and place to everything else – is that commitment to abortion, for any reason, at any time. For people on the Left, that right to abortion has become the “first freedom,” taking the place of freedom of speech and religion. If abortion were explicitly barred from a vast new program of medical care, that would be taken as another, telling sign that the public has refused to accept the legitimacy of abortion as just another form of surgery. For the National Organization of Women, and the Left at the core of the Democratic Party, that kind of judgment is just not to be brooked. If that is the cost of national heath care, they would rather not have it than suffer this moral reproach running to the core of their lives.

If Stupak can hold that cluster of “about forty” votes, they would be joined to a cohesive Republican bloc, and they would be enough to defeat the bill on medical care. On the other hand, two or three of those Blue Dog Democrats could be bought off by the administration, or talked into sacrificing themselves for the good of the party in seizing this moment. Or: the Democrats will accept the temporary exclusion of abortion if they can get their main measure passed. Once the new scheme is in place, all of the trends at work in the bureaucracy and courts will be on the side of accepting abortion as a medical procedure thoroughly legitimate.

But the calculations distract us from what is truly wrong with this picture. Past the feistiness of Bart Stupak and his gang of Blue Dogs is the hapless, if not witless, condition of the pro-life Democrats and the voters who keep them there. It is the same incoherence that afflicted the pro-life voters who voted to put Bob Casey in the Senate in Pennsylvania. If they were really pro-life, what sense did it make to vote for a man who would help put in control of the Senate or the Congress the party that is radically pro-abortion? If the Bart Stupaks truly regarded the protection of life as the issue that rises above all others, why have they been willing to make themselves agents for putting into power the party that regards the defense of abortion as its first, controlling principle?


Hadley Arkes is the Ney Professor of Jurisprudence at Amherst College.

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