Back in the 70s and 80s, the Democratic Party was a fairly uniformly libertarian organization. It was the party of civil rights for minorities, gender equality and the guarantee of basic civil liberties for all, including those liberties expressly reserved for women under the principles of Roe v. Wade. But when the party of tolerance began to compromise its more progressive principles by permitting the less liberty-minded under the big tent, it created a contingent of religious extremists in its own ranks who were willing to sacrifice progress in order to advance a myopic agenda of outlawing abortion.
Replaying the highlights of the healthcare reform process, it is plain that the anti-choice showboating of a few Democrats came closer than any concerted resistance by Republicans to putting off reform for another generation or more. Though the question before Congress was how to fix the healthcare crisis, it seemed all that Rep. Bart Stupak of Michigan and Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska wanted anyone to talk about was who would pay for abortion insurance. With Nelson and Stupak focusing public attention on the hot- button abortion diversion and away from the relevant issues of how to curb costs and keep the insurance industry accountable, it’s no wonder the rest of the Democrats resorted to backdoor deals to save the very life of reform, in place of vigorous discourse on the substantive issues. After all, most politicians would rather take a beating than publicly debate abortion rights, even when abortion rights are the real focus of government action.
But vigorous debate over the contours of reform was not all that was lost. Late last year, through a series of appeasement talks with Senator Nelson who is both anti-choice and anti public option, Democratic Senate leadership bowed to the threat that he and the other anti-choice Democrats would not support any reform at all: the result was a complex set of restrictions on abortion coverage by private insurance companies. But the most devastating result of these negotiations, at least relative to systemic reform, was omission of the public option. Caving in to enormous pressure to move forward with reform, without getting mired in debate over reproductive freedom, Democratic leadership quietly removed the public option. That move was part of the deal with Senator Nelson to bring the rest of the anti-choice contingent into the list of supporters of the Democratic plan.
As it turned out, the abortion diversion was a handy way for Nelson to avoid flack he might otherwise have taken for being against the public option as a stand-alone issue. When declared his opposition to the public option back in early 2009, the media was obliged to mention the inconvenient truth that Nelson owed his political career to the private insurance and pharmaceutical industries that had bankrolled his campaigns with over $2 million in contributions. Without the stalking horse of opposing abortion rights, it was easy to draw a straight line from Nelson being paid for by the big players in the private insurance sector and his being opposed to a public alternative. By playing the fetal rights card much later in the debate, when the Democrats were facing increasing pressure to produce a reform package and move on to other pressing domestic matters, Nelson was able to reduce public option to just so much collateral damage.
For his part, Congressman Stupak had hit the brakes on supporting reform as early as the spring of last year, citing the possibility that a fraction of a woman’s insurance premiums covering abortion might be paid with federal money. But even after restrictions on abortion coverage and funding for abortion coverage were in the bill for good, he insisted that the Stupak Amendment be added as well. For Stupak and those in the anti-choice fringe trying to use him to stop reform, the Senate bill restrictions along with the no-federal-money-for-abortion guarantee in the Hyde Amendment were simply not enough assurance. In a pyrrhic victory for those who wanted healthcare reform legislation without more anti-choice language, Stupak got an eleventh-hour Executive Order stating that that no federal funds would be used to pay for abortion coverage. That promise was enough, and he withdrew his amendment.
While the anti-choice histrionics of these Senators and their allies relative to healthcare reform were far from the first signs of trouble, they may finally be seen as a costly enough diversion to convince Democratic Party leaders to insist that deeply held anti-abortion convictions remain deeply held on a personal level and deferred to the Party platform at all times relevant to legislative debate and the formation of public policy. Not only are these show-downs a divisive exercise within the party, they also put disunity (or worse) on display. Meantime, the price Democrats may pay this November for missteps and half-steps on the way to healthcare reform remains to be seen as does Rep. Stupak’s ability to overcome a concerted progressive effort to replace him with a moderate Congressman from his own party. Unfortunately, Senator Nelson has the next three years to call in his insurance and drug company favors before his next election and at least that much time for an opportunity to make a bigger political name for himself in the context of dealing with a potential vacancy on the very U.S. Supreme Court that could revisit Roe v. Wade.