It might look like Rep. Bart Stupak, the crucial holdout for more draconian restrictions on abortion in the health-care bill, was swayed, finally, by the executive order reiterating that The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act upholds the ban on federal funding of abortion. For months Stupak, carrying the water of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, had insisted that the Senate bill failed to ensure that federal funds wouldn't somehow help pay for an abortion. He was cheered on not only by the USCCB but by the hardcore anti-abortion right, which largely didn't want health-care reform anyway.
But Stupak had been under pressure to find a way out of his relentless opposition to the Senate bill. Over the past few weeks, Catholics and Catholic groups who previously had not contested the bishops' stance began to speak out. More than two weeks ago, Catholics United, a group founded after the 2004 election "to promote the U.S. Catholic Bishops' 2003 document 'Faithful Citizenship: A Catholic Call to Political Responsibility,'" publicly broke with the bishops and declared that not only did the Stupak amendment restrict abortion more than the Hyde Amendment, but the Senate version of the bill did, too.
CU's executive director, Chris Korzen, told me that even though a survey conducted of his group's membership showed that almost half of them believed the Senate bill was also too restrictive, the group had concluded that "it's probably not worth holding up health-care reform over." The pro-life side's continued wrangling over the Senate language, he added, "suggests that they're not really serious about finding a workable solution." In the final days before last night's vote, CU ran saturation ads in the districts of undecided Democrats.
When the Catholic Health Association rejected the USCCB's position last week, stating that it believed that the bill adequately ensured that no federal funds would be used to pay for abortion, it seemed to open a critical door. Next, the Leadership Council of Women Religious, an organization of nuns -- all leaders of their religious orders -- split with bishops as well. Both Stupak and the bishops denigrated the nuns' ability to do serious policy analysis, even though the CHA and the nuns were right: The bill ensured no federal funds would subsidize abortion.
While last week it started to look like Stupak was the one becoming marginalized in the Democratic caucus, the whip count meant he still held the cards. But the executive order that secured his vote isn't satisfying the bishops or the anti-choice groups who just days ago considered Stupak their hero. The Susan B. Anthony List stripped him of his "Defender of Life" award. Americans United for Life's president Charmaine Yoest called the deal with Stupak "a tragedy for America," because, she claimed, the legislation represents the "largest expansion of abortion since Roe v. Wade."
That reaction from the anti-choice groups isn't a surprise. What is new is the split from the USCCB by groups who oppose abortion but nonetheless saw the speciousness of the bishops' claim that the reform bill allowed federal funding of abortion. They played an important role in bringing those final, critical Democratic votes, but the way this played out highlights how much elected officials primarily listened to one version of What Catholics Want (no federal funding for abortion).
Catholics for Choice, a long-time supporter of health care reform, supports federal funding for abortion. The group's president, Jon O'Brien, reiterated to me last week that pro-choice groups, including his own, were willing to go along with the Hyde restrictions in order to get health care reform passed. But Democrats included the more draconian restrictions, leading O'Brien to conclude that they had "turned their backs on poor women."
That the White House would issue the executive order -- even though it's legally meaningless -- further entrenches the Democrats in a position of opposition to federal funding for abortion. That's a position that satisfies the anti-abortion Catholics who split with the bishops, who might now be viewed as the saviors of reform. O'Brien pledged that his and other pro-choice groups will have a renewed commitment now to getting the Hyde amendment repealed. But the way the Democrats have done this, and given that they are dedicated to "common ground" efforts to reduce the number of abortions, it seems unlikely that they'd feel they owed that -- or anything, for that matter -- to the defenders of abortion access and reproductive choice.