Kudos to Representative Bart Stupak, the pro-life Democrat from Michigan who has insisted throughout the health care debate that he wanted to see a bill pass provided it did not include government funding of abortion. While deals were being made on virtually every other issue, he dug in his heels, drew a line in the sand, and said, "This far and no further." Indeed, the entire country has had to stop and think about abortion in a way it has not done so for a very long time because of Stupak’s happy intransigence. I met Stupak last autumn at a social event and asked a mutual friend to introduce us. I told him that he was a hero to those of us who are progressive but also pro-life. He still is.
Last night, I watched the increasingly tiresome Rachel Maddow try and besmirch Stupak because of his association with "C Street" the shadowy home of conservative, and religiously conservative, members of Congress and other politicians. The house has endured a ton of bad publicity as one sanctimonious conservative after another got caught with their pants down – literally. Sen. John Ensign, who cheated on his wife with the wife of a good friend, lives there and Gov. Mark Sanford, whose walk in the Appalachians took him to Argentina and who had the gall to ask his wife if it was okay to continue seeing his mistress, kept a room there when in town. Maddow was concerned that Stupak did not pay enough in rent. And, maybe there is something to that. But, I suspect the timing of the story had more to do with her opposition to Stupak’s position on abortion, as did the fact that she only highlighted Stupak’s rent payments and not anyone else’s.
On the narrow issue, members of Congress should not receive reduced, below-market housing from anyone except a blood relative or a wealthy fellow member. The appropriate market to analyze, however, is not that charged at a real estate office but by organizations like the University Club or the Society of the Cincinnati. This latter group also maintains a home in Washington at which members can stay. The rooms are sumptuous. The members, of course, must have an ancestor who served as an officer in the army of General George Washington. I go there whenever a Frenchman whose ancestor was Lafayette’s aide-de-camp is in town. I do not know if C Street required dues of its members but such arrangements may not, as Maddow implied, necessarily break any ethical rules. I would be more concerned about the free late night entertainment at C Street!
On the larger issue, the last thing progressives should be doing is demonizing those Democrats who are pro-life. For starters, it should be clear to everyone by now, that Stupak’s position is a principled one, and that always warrants respect. Second, it is bad politics – if Stupak were to lose, his seat would doubtlessly be taken by a pro-life Republican, and I do not see how that would advance Maddow’s agenda. Her attack last night put me in mind of the conservative attacks on moderate Republican Dede Scozzafava, an attack that resulted in the Democrats winning the seat for the first time since the Civil War.
If I had five minutes with Stupak, I would first congratulate him for his courage, for his support for life, and for his support for health care reform. Never forget, those pro-life champions on the other side of the aisle are not doing anything to pass this bill and so they have side-lined themselves entirely. I would also tell him why I actually prefer the Senate language, that the segregation of funds his own bill foresees is actually mandated in the Senate bill and that the lack of an individual opt-out which seems to be at the heart of the opposition of the USCCB misunderstands the fact that in an exchange, the mandate only applies to those who chose a plan with abortion. There is an easy way to avoid the mandate which is to choose a plan that doesn’t cover abortion, and a mandate that is easy to avoid is no mandate at all. Furthermore, Stupak is silent on the issue of people buying insurance through the exchanges with their own money while the Senate language insists that they, too, pay separately for any abortion insurance coverage. I would not sniff at the cultural, didactic value of making millions of Americans write separate checks every month. If Stupak believes, however, that the language in his amendment remains the only way forward, I do not question his motives and I still admire his constancy.
It is not clear to me how the abortion language could be changed in the current bill, but surely there is a way. It is becoming increasingly clear that Speaker Pelosi will need the 12 votes of the pro-life Democrats who insist on the Stupak language. It is amazing to me, and amazingly hopeful, that at the end of the day, the discussion about health care reform is coming down to a discussion of how to restrict abortion! Remember the demonizing of the President last spring, those who said he would be the most pro-abortion president ever. Yet, here we are discussing which is better, the language from Congressman Stupak or from pro-life Senator Ben Nelson. However that discussion turns out, it is a win for the pro-life movement. But, only if the health care reform bill passes. Otherwise, we will continue with the current system in which we subsidize abortion coverage through the tax code for the indefinite future. And, what is more, the other pro-life provisions of the health care reform bill will not be enacted.
So, kudos to Stupak. Kudos to Sen. Nelson. Kudos to all those who support pro-health care reform and pro-life candidates at election time.
Michael Sean Winters