The Catholic bishops have gotten a lot of attention for the role they played in pushing the Stupak amendment -- and the House health-care bill -- over the finish line. While there's no doubt the bishops applied the midnight pressure, their role is just one piece of how Democrats yearn for the godly imprimatur.
To be sure, the final outcome on the House side is the result of whip counts simply not adding up to the number needed to pass the bill. But Democrats ending up in the position of having to obtain a particular religious stamp of approval was also the result of seeking out the "faith vote" in the last several election cycles, and confining the definition of "people of faith" to people who oppose abortion.
The Democrats "got religion," but at what cost?
The Democrats failed to tap into pro-choice religious groups as a voice to argue for inclusion of abortion coverage in a health-care bill. Instead, these groups, along with leading pro-choice groups, acquiesced to the Capps amendment, which would have segregated private and public funds and used only private funds to pay for abortions, as a reasonable compromise. But not being met in the middle by the anti-choice side has infuriated the pro-choice side.
The day before the House vote on November 7, pro-choice groups, including religious pro-choice groups like Catholics for Choice, were essentially saying they would hold their noses and not object to an abortion amendment compromise being crafted by Rep. Brad Ellsworth. That proposed amendment would have required a private contractor to oversee disbursement of funds for abortion coverage to ensure that public funds wouldn't be used. The pro-choice side did this reluctantly, though, because they felt they had already compromised by acquiescing to the Capps amendment when they in fact favor full coverage of abortion services.
On November 6, I wrote in a story published at Religion Dispatches:
Indeed, the pro-choice camp has compromised in order to make the bill more palatable to the anti-choice camp, which is not meeting them in the middle. “This is a hard time for us in the pro-choice community,” said [Catholics for Choice president Jon] O'Brien. “We’ve been straightforward and reasonable.” The House bill “is not a win for women. But it’s not a loss for the poor, marginalized, and dispossessed. We see it as a compromise.”
When the Stupak amendment prevailed, these pro-choicers were furious. The midnight pressure applied by the Catholic bishops amounted to the enshrining of one particular religion -- and indeed one version of that particular religion -- into law. Polling data showed that most Catholics not only disagreed with the bishops' position on the Stupak amendment, but also believed they shouldn't be politicizing the health-care debate. While the bishops do have an infrastructure that gives them access to thousands of parishes across the country -- unrivaled in any other denomination -- many pro-choice advocates believe that Congress "drank the Kool-Aid" that the bishops have actual power to sway votes.
The anti-choice Democrats who allowed Bart Stupak to be their ringleader now risk being seen as more aligned with the religious right than with their own party. As I reported at RD, while the Catholic bishops were in Nancy Pelosi's office late that Friday night, the religious right -- and Democrats for Life of America -- were rallying the religious right's base to push members of Congress to settle for nothing less than the Stupak amendment. Their goal, as we know, is blocking access to legal abortion, and a new study from the George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services maintains the Stupak amendment would, over time, end all insurance coverage for abortion services. But the Ellsworth compromise, the religious right maintained, was nothing more than a "money-laundering scheme." (Apparently the Catholic bishops believe Catholic organizations are capable of segregating public and private funds, but the government is not.)
But where were the president's vaunted faith allies? The ones who were supposed to bring home the big tent? The broader agenda voters who didn't care about abortion anymore? It seems like there are cracks in their common ground strategy on health care. Religious pro-choice groups are not going to be sidelined in order for "people of faith" to close ranks around a health-care bill, just to support a health-care bill. As I reported earlier this week, religious pro-choice groups might have been foiled on Stupak, but they vowing not going to be silent in their advocacy for abortion coverage in the final bill.