The Lives and Improbable Works of the Pro-Life Democrats

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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  • Willie

    Leftist Hijacking !
    Professor, always a sense of sanity in this present cesspool of leftist tyranny If one wants a preview of coming attractions. look at the inept handling of distribution of H1N1 vaccine. One must wonder if there is a moral issue developing in paying taxes to a regime that will spend that money providing abortions and God knows what other attacks on human life. Do people know what’s going on, or is apathy so prevalent that a leftist regime is able to operate without popular representation?

  • Ars Artium

    The power of evil
    Faithful Democrats of the old tradition who struggled for the weak against the powerful cannot quite make the transition to a party they despised for so long. They are attempting to work from within their party in a laudable attempt to restore fundamental principles. While I admire their loyalty and courage, I also fear that the last election has set in motion a process that will now run its destructive course.

  • Jennifer

    The problem
    I think that the Democrats and Republicans both have a piece of the truth — and that they both are committing grave errors in judgement. My only complaint about the writing in CT is that too often the Republicans are cast as the good guys against the evil Democrats. The Republicans are busy worshipping mammon as much as the next pagan. They are hardly our faithful allies. Perhaps it would be better not to take political sides, but to be fully Catholic.

  • Thomas C. Coleman, Jr.

    Defense of GOP Tilt
    Jennifer, Granted that there are negatives from the Catholic view to aspects of both parites, only one is nearly unanimously pro-abortion, pro embryonic stem cell butcery, and pro-sodomite marriage. That party also promotes statist social policies as compatible with Catholic teaching, while protraying the other party as Social Darwinsts and racists who only care about tax cuts for the rich. Ever heard of the famous pauper George Soros? Catholic loyalty to Dems is why we have abortion!

  • David Six, Ph.D.

    Blue Dogs and Pro-life
    Dr. Arkes: I would point out that the Blue Dogs are not all pro-life (only 22 of the 52 opposed abortion funding for the District of Columbia). Furthermore, many pro-life Democrats are not Blue Dogs (17 of the 39 Democrats who opposed abortion funding for D.C. are not Blue Dogs). So, between the 52 Blue Dogs and 17 non-Blue Dog pro-life Democrats like Stupak, we need 40 or 41 of them to hold strong on keeping abortion out of government-sponsored/subsidized health care.

    Dave Six, Pro-Life Dem.

  • David Six, Ph.D.

    Immoral Regimes
    Willie: Republicans are by no means perfect on Life Issues. Republicans gave us: Supreme Court who dictated Roe v Wade, Doe v Bolton, etc. Research and vaccines that use aborted fetuses. Funding of contraception and abortions of children conceived of rape, incest, or to women in risky pregnancies. Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan opposed by the Vatican. Resumption of the death penalty. Republicans do not think health care is a right. They also block legal immigration pathways for hard workers. -Dave

  • Thomas C. Coleman, Jr.

    Who said perfect?
    Dear David Six: 1) No one has suggested that the GOP is “perfect on Life issues.” 2) While the Vatican opposed the invasion of Iraq, it dd NOT oppose the US military action in Afghanistan, which both parties supported. 3) Neither agreement with the Pope’s postion on a given war nor oppsotion to captial punishment is binding on Catholics, as then Cardinal Ratzinger wrote in 2004. 4) Please explain ‘block legal immigration pathways for hard workers.”

  • Burton

    “moral equivalency?”
    Dave: I agree that neither political party alligns perfectly with doctrinal orthodoxy. However, I get the distinct impression that the “seamless garment” argument (which you seem to espouse in your 2nd post) is used as a means of obfuscation – a clouding of the clear moral distinction between abortion (which no orthodox Catholic may support) and those issues on which orthodox Catholics may disagree (just war definition, death penalty, immigration reform policy, global warming, etc).

  • Willie

    To David Six PhD
    Dave: I believe no party is perfect when it comes to life issues. I do, however, these days feel as a pro life person more comfortable in the Republican party. After all what party would nominate a pro life candidate. And whether it was a Democratic war such as WW I, WW II, Korea or Vietnam or a Republican war in Iraq or Afghanistan, I would wonder how my tax money was spent. That being said, my problem is that I don’t consider abortion and war as a moral equivalency. No tax money for abortion.

  • DaveS

    Pro-life Democrats are a permanent minority and, thus, witless. I know of several devout Catholic pro-life Democrats and I cannot bring myself to vote for them because abortion and gay marriage survive on account of the Democrats.

  • Ryan Haber

    Et Tu, Brute?
    “Relax, Rusty. The Republicans will betray us eventually anyway.” – the late Rev. Fr. Richard John Neuhaus to his friend, R. R. Reno, from “Religion, Culture, and Public Life” in First Things. Let’s not prostitute ourselves to the GOP to avoid being whored by the DNC. Let’s instead, Christians, remember our dignity as the Bride of Christ. Long live Christ the King!

  • blue8064

    GOP Not Pro-Life Either
    Unfortunately, the Republicans are not pro-life either. The main reason for that is their support for a policy denying an increase in welfare payments to unmarried welfare mothers who have more children while on welfare (the family cap). Such a policy implicitly tells welfare mothers to abort their babies instead of allowing them to be born, and is therefore pro-abortion. On the other hand, working families have dependency exemptions and child tax credits to help them with raising children.

  • Brad Miner

    To blue8064
    Dear Blue:
    That’s just bizaare.

  • David Six

    I am not arguing moral equivalence of anything, the seamless garment is a pile of threads because of Roe v. Wade. I only vote pro-life. Thankfully I am in North Carolina, where Rep. Heath Shuler and Rep. Mike McIntyre are great pro-life Democrats. Check their records with They are more pro-life than most Republicans. Catholics should complain about policies in both parties. Catholic Republicans should work for justice for immigrants, an end to the death penalty, smaller military, etc.

  • Lisa Nicholas, Ph. D.

    Voting for Democrats?
    The final point Prof. Arkes makes is the very reason I refrained from voting for Brad Ellsworth (D., IN) when he first ran in 2006. He was a Catholic, well-known in the area, and said all the right things, but I didn’t trust him to hold on to his pro-life convictions once he became a part of the national party “machine.” He has done so, in fact, but I wonder why he remains in the Dem. party — and how long he can buck the party’s agenda.