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Moment of Truth

Where will pro-life Democrats like Sen. Ben Nelson stand?

By 11.20.09

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At the dawn of the Obama administration, pro-life Democrats believed they had finally gotten their place at the table. The president may be fervently pro-choice, the vice president a Catholic who abandoned his early pro-life views in pursuit of electoral success. Widely heralded changes to the 2008 Democratic platform failed to include a "tolerance clause" acknowledging the pro-life Democrats' existence.

But in 2006 and 2008, the party leadership recruited pro-life Democrats to run in culturally conservative areas of the country or in races where they thought the pro-lifer would be the better candidate (Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, as pro-choice as they come, tried to coax a pro-life Democrat into the Rhode Island race for Rockefeller Republican Lincoln Chafee's Senate seat). Harry Reid, a self-described pro-lifer, became the Senate majority leader. Moreover, President Obama was supposed to find new common ground between pro-choice and pro-life Democrats, bringing the party together.

"We need to protect life not from conception to birth but from conception to natural death,"Congressman Heath Shuler (D-N.C.) told a small Democrats for Life gathering last year during his party's national convention in Denver. "[Democrats] need a lot of work on the first nine months, but Republicans have a lot more work to do from birth to natural death."

Alas, the platform's concessions were largely limited to language saying the Democratic Party "strongly supports a woman's decision to have a child." The "common ground" legislation on which pro-life and pro-choice Democrats collaborated frequently contained subsidies for abortion providers. And the Democrats' pro-life Senate majority leader voted against the pro-life side on eight of the first 11 key votes since Reid took over the top position.

Yet some pro-life Democrats were made of sterner stuff. Congressman Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) insisted that he could not support any health care plan -- a signature policy initiative of the Obama administration -- if it used taxpayer dollars to pay for abortions. The first effort to mollify such critics came in the form of the Capps amendment, sponsored by pro-choice Congresswoman Lois Capps (D-Calif.). Capps would ban direct federal subsidies to abortion and would allow insurance policies that did not cover abortion to be sold through the health exchanges.

What Capps would not do, however, is keep the federal government from subsidizing health insurance that covers abortion. That is a very large loophole that differs from how the federal government handles insurance for its own civilian employees and for military personnel. Those insurance policies cannot cover abortion, consistent with a meaningful ban on taxpayer funding of the practice.

Enter the Stupak amendment. The House Democratic leadership discovered they could not pass a health care bill unless it contained Stupak's meaningful ban on public financing of abortion. There is simply no other explanation for why House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) allowed the amendment to come up for a vote and allowed the House version of the health care bill to pass with a pro-life provision in place. The pro-life Democrats claim to have swung nearly 20 votes for the bill, including that of its only Republican supporter. The Congressional Pro-Choice Caucus has said Stupak's allies are bluffing, but won't release their own list of people who will vote against health care reform if the Stupak amendment remains intact.

This is the first major legislative victory by pro-life Democrats in the Obama administration (delaying federal subsidies to international family planning groups that perform or promote abortion and Doug Kmiec's ambassadorship do not count). Their erstwhile ally in the Senate, Harry Reid, is working to make sure it is their last. The Senate version of the health care bill strips the Stupak language, mandates that at least one plan offered by state government insurance exchanges cover abortion, and reduces the ban on abortions being subsidized by the government-run public option to an accounting gimmick. A statement by the National Right to Life Committee declared, "Reid seeks to cover elective abortions in two big new federal health programs, but tries to conceal that unpopular reality with layers of contrived definitions and hollow bookkeeping requirements."

Pro-choice groups have sprung into action. The Stupak amendment is far from a "ban" on abortion, as some activists are alleging, but it could have a real impact on abortion coverage throughout the country. This would be particularly true as more people gained their coverage through either the government health insurance exchanges or the public option.

Already, Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska -- one of a handful of pro-life Democrats in the upper chamber -- has told the Hill that Reid's abortion language is unacceptable. "I think you need to have it eminently clear that no dollars that are federal tax dollars, directly or indirectly, are used to pay for abortions and it needs to be totally clear," the paper quotes Nelson as saying. "[It's] not clear enough, I don't think."

Even ideal language may not be enough in the long term. "For pro-lifers the prize shouldn't be Stupak," a former Republican congressman who was unseated by a pro-life Democrat told TAS. "The prize is the public option. If a woman has a right to an abortion, eventually the courts will open the door to the public option covering abortions."

A key procedural vote is coming -- as early as Saturday -- that will nevertheless be a moment of truth for pro-life Democrats like Ben Nelson. Do they stand with Harry Reid or Bart Stupak?

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About the Author

W. James Antle III, author of the new book Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped?, is editor of the Daily Caller News Foundation and a senior editor of The American Spectator. You can follow him on Twitter @jimantle.