Most New Yorkers hadn’t heard of Bart Stupak before he attached his devastating anti-abortion amendment to the House’s health-care-reform bill three weeks ago. We know a lot more about him now, of course: that he lives in a Christian rooming house on C Street; that he’s a former state trooper. He has become a symbol of legislative zealotry, living proof that the fight over the right to choose will always attract a more impassioned opposition than defense. (As Harrison Hickman, a former pollster for NARAL, put it to me: “If you believe that choosing the wrong side of the issue means spending eternal life in Hades, of course you’re going to be more focused on it.”) Just a week after the vote, when I reached the Michigan Democrat as he was driving across his district, he seemed dumbfounded that anyone found his brinkmanship surprising. “I said to anyone who’d listen: ‘Do you want health care, or do you want to fight out abortion?’ ” says Stupak. He points out that he’d nearly managed to bring down a rule about abortion funding earlier in the summer, this time in a bill about spending in the District of Columbia. “I said, ‘Look, that was a shot across your bow,’ ” he recalls. “ ‘I was being polite to you. That was a warning.’ And the leadership just blew us off.”
Until it realized it couldn’t, of course. And the results sent chills through the pro-choice world, dampening what was otherwise an impressive victory for Democrats on the issue of universal health care. If Stupak’s amendment holds, then any health-insurance plan that’s either listed on the government-run exchange or accepts federal subsidies—which would likely be almost all of them—would not be allowed to cover abortions. (The Senate bill is better thus far, but what the legislation will ultimately be, assuming it passes at all, is anyone’s guess.) Four days after the vote, Kate Michelman, the former head of NARAL, and Frances Kissling, the former head of Catholics for Choice, warned of an ominous new landscape in a Times op-ed: “The House Democrats reinforced the principle that a minority view on the morality of abortion can determine reproductive-health policy for American women.”
But is that actually right? Was Stupak’s truly the minority view?
According to a Gallup poll from July, 60 percent of Americans think abortion should be either illegal or “legal only in a few circumstances.” Only seventeen states pay for the procedure for poor women beyond the standards of the 1977 Hyde Amendment—meaning if the woman’s life is in danger or she’s been the victim of rape or incest. Just two months before the health-care bill’s passage in the House, a Rasmussen poll found that 48 percent of the public didn’t want abortion covered in any government-subsidized health plan, while just 13 percent did. (Thirty-two percent believed in a “neutral” approach—though what on Earth that means is hard to say.)
“I knew even some pro-choice people would vote with us,” says Stupak. “This wasn’t like opposing RU-486 or parental consent.”
To really understand the House vote on abortion, one ought not look just at Bart Stupak. As the Democratic co-chair of the pro-life caucus in Congress, he was bound to have strong feelings on the subject. More representative, perhaps, of the kind of supporter he attracted in Congress was David Obey—chairman of the Appropriations Committee and, with some exceptions, a committed Wisconsin progressive. He votes for expanding money to Pell Grants, Head Start, and stem-cell research. He was an outspoken opponent of the Iraq War and voted against a Republican-proposed ban on gay adoptions in the District of Columbia. It just so happens that he takes the pro-life doctrine of his faith quite seriously. “I agree with my church,” he wrote in a national Catholic weekly in 2004, “that abortion in most cases is wrong.”
“Because there’s a Democratic majority in Congress and the president is pro-choice,” says Nancy Keenan, the current director of NARAL, “it sometimes gets lost how truly numerically challenged we are.” That’s especially true for people in New York City, where access to abortion is plentiful and unconstrained. But it’s a very ambivalent pro-choice nation we live in. The idea that a bunch of pro-life rogue wingnuts have hijacked the agenda and thwarted the national will is a convenient, but fanciful, belief. Even with an 81-person margin in the House, and even with a passionately committed female, pro-choice Speaker, it was the Democrats who managed to pass a bill that, arguably, would restrict access to abortion more aggressively than any state measure or legal case since the Supreme Court decided Roe v. Wade.
From the moment abortion was legalized nationally in 1973, the American public wasn’t especially comfortable with it. As Jeffrey Rosen, the legal scholar at George Washington University, wrote in The Atlantic three years ago, Roe v. Wade was one of the few Supreme Court decisions that was out of step with mainstream public opinion. Patricia Schroeder, the Denver Democrat who was first elected to the House in 1972, remembers that practically every bill she saw in the beginning of her tenure had an anti-abortion rider attached to it, forcing the same ten or so women down to the House floor. “And we’d get very angry,” she recalls, “because there would be very few congressmen joining us. They’d say, ‘We really don’t like having to vote on this all the time,’ and we’d say, ‘Um, we’re not the ones bringing you down here.’ ” Within a decade, says Elizabeth Nash, an analyst at the Guttmacher Institute, states had made significant headway in trimming the law’s scope, with 27 passing measures that required 24-hour waiting periods, mandatory counseling, or both (now law in 34 states), and 25 passing measures that required parental notice or consent (ditto).