Abortion, Congress, and Rome

I don’t think any of us, champions, opponents, or agnostics of  the Democratic healthcare overhaul to include heavy incentives for private insurers not to fund abortions, or banning funding outright. As someone supportive of legal access to elective pregnancy termination but against state funding of elective abortions*, I find it disheartening.

At first, when I heard vague chatter of a last-minute amendment banning federal funding of abortions, I reflexively supported it, going so far as to write a headline for a post “Why I support the Stupak Amendment,” but leaving the text blank and to be filled in later. But within minutes, I had learned what the measure actually entails:

The Stupak-Pitts amendment forbids any plan offering abortion coverage in the new system from accepting even one subsidized customer. Since more than 80 percent of the participants in the exchange will be subsidized, it seems certain that all health plans will seek and accept these individuals. In other words, the Stupak-Pitts amendment forces plans in the exchange to make a difficult choice: either offer their product to 80 percent of consumers in the marketplace or offer abortion services in their benefits package. It seems clear which choice they will make.

It looks as if all terminations–even the late-term ones usually performed when the mother’s life is is at grave and immediate risk–will be paid for out-of-pocket if the “reform” passes. I don’t think it would be an injustice if, by coincidence, all private insurers decided as a matter of internal policy not to fund elective abortions; but Stupak’s amendment eliminates the private sector’s possibility of exercising the power of choice on this matter.

 In between my skepticism of the economic feasibility of the plan, concern over measures mandating transparent flattery of fringe cultists, and now this, I find it increasingly difficult to support America’s Affordable Health Choices Act of 2009. Moreover, it does not speak well to the health of the Democratic coalition that they are willing to compromise so deeply on one of the harder issues they have traditionally supported. This is the sort of thing that makes people jump ship for the Greens. And nobody wants to loose votes to the Greens.  


TNR is host to a debate on what role Catholicism in Congress played in the passage of Stupak’s amendment. William Galson argues the geographic breakdown of its supporters illustrates the influence of Catholic voters:

Although we lack district-by-district breakdowns of religious affiliation, data from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life indicates that a majority of the Catholics who supported the Stupak amendment hail from states with above-average Catholic populations, and the ethnic composition of their districts suggests that they have large numbers of Catholic constituents.

Region matters as well. Of the 29 non-Catholic Democrats who voted for the Stupak amendment, 20 hail from conservative southern districts, and two from heavily Catholic districts in Texas and New Mexico. The remaining seven represent conservative-leaning districts in Indiana, Utah, West Virginia, Minnesota, North Dakota, and Ohio.

No Democrats from the western-tier states of Washington and Oregon or the mid-Atlantic states of New York, New Jersey, and Maryland voted for the amendment; of the 21 New England Democrats, only four–all Catholic–supported it.

…while Alan Wolfe says the amendment’s history is a marker of the dissolution of the “Catholic vote” :

The idea that the Catholic Church has a malign influence on American politics goes way back to the Know-Nothings of the nineteenth century and continued up to the election of John F. Kennedy as president in 1960. Catholics were widely viewed as bloc voters. Unlike more individualistically inclined Protestants, the theory went, Catholics were more committed to principles of group solidarity and institutional loyalty. Living in geographic proximity, they supported urban political bosses who distributed jobs and favors among their fellow Mass attenders. Catholic members of Congress were invariably Democrats from safe districts comprised of their co-religionists; their longevity allowed them to rise to leadership positions through the committee system. To be sure, JFK was the only Catholic elected president. But if one looked at the state and local level as well as the other branches of the national government, their influence was enormous. Only 25 percent of Americans are Catholic, for example, but five of the nine judges of the U. S. Supreme Court can be considered members of the Church.

If group solidarity was the force that gave the Church its influence, the Stupak amendment reveals deep division. Its support came overwhelmingly from Republicans–and since so many of them are from the South, the positive vote for the amendment says more about Baptists than it does about Catholics. As Willliam Galston points out, the majority of the 64 Democrats who joined them were Catholic. At the same time, however, supporters also included Blue Dog Democrats from the South such as Tennessee’s Lincoln Davis, a member of the First Baptist Church in Byrdstown. It was, in short, not the Catholic Church that passed the Stupak amendment, but all those who are pro-life for political rather than religious reasons.

Similar ecumenicalism existed on the other side of the aisle. Voting against the Stupak Amendment were such prominent Catholic Democrats as Speaker Nancy Pelosi, as well as backbenchers such as Frank Pallone of New Jersey and Carol Shea-Porter of New Hampshire. Even more tellingly, Catholic House members with their eyes on Senate seats–Michael Capuano from Massachusetts and Joe Sestak from Pennsylvania–voted against, as if realizing that election to statewide office required showing independence of mind. Hispanic Congressmen from Texas tended to vote with the Republicans, but Hispanics from California tended to vote with the Democrats. (Region, as Galston also points out, still matters–for as the Catholic politician Tip O’Neill once put it, reflecting the realities of parish life, “All politics is local”). It is true that religion matters as well, but less, I believe, than Galston suggests. After all, an amendment written by a man that would only affect women was strongly opposed by female members of Congress no matter what their faith.

In this sense, the Stupak Amendment mirrored the situation facing Catholics in the whole country. From the 1930s to the 1950s, Catholics tended to agree on the main issues of the day: Most of them were liberal in economic terms and conservative on foreign policy. These days, Catholics are all over the map politically, even on issues on which their Church takes strong stands. According to a March 2009 Gallup poll, there are no significant differences between Catholics and other Americans on either abortion or stem cell research: 40 percent of Catholics find abortion morally acceptable and 63 percent have no problem with stem cells, compared to 41 percent and 62 percent of non-Catholics respectively. In its own way, the Stupak Amendment revealed the single most important truth about American Catholics: their unwillingness to blindly follow Church teachings.



*A postion I do not find to be at all paradoxical or contradictory.

I find the framing of the abortion debate solely as a matter of “choice” simplistic and unenlightening insofar as it ignores the primary arguments of those opposed to abortion, but put this thought to those who do utilize that rhetoric: Public funding of abortion effectively strips anti-abortion taxpayers of their power of choice, forcing them, if in symoblism only, to fund that which they abhor.


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