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The Weaknesses of the Pro-Choice Movement Have Been Exposed -- Now What?

How did an invigorated pro-choice movement, still pumped up from Democratic victories in 2008, wind up shafted? Where do we go from here?

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In fact, the Democratic majority in the House that many found so comforting in the last election was largely won by the party's decision to embrace socially conservative candidates, including opponents of abortion. Consider some of the recently elected House Democrats who voted for Stupak. Heath Shuler, who represents western North Carolina and beat a Republican incumbent in 2006, has, along with Bart Stupak, lived in the Washington residence owned by the religious organization The Family. On every occasion possible, Shuler has voted against choice. He even opposed the international distribution of condoms, as did his friend Brad Ellsworth, an Indiana House member who defeated a six-term Republican incumbent and opposes abortion and stem cell research. Then there's Kathy Dahlkemper from Pennsylvania, another Democrat who knocked out a Republican incumbent, in 2008. Dahlkemper has spoken on the House floor about how her own unintended pregnancy shaped her opposition to abortion.

In all, 64 House Democrats voted for the Stupak Amendment, most of them representing conservative districts where many constituents are uncomfortable with the notion of public funding for abortion. A 2009 poll conducted by the Pew Research Center suggests that this critical anti-choice demographic may be growing. Not only did the poll document less support for abortion overall than in previous years; it also found one of the biggest increases in opposition to be among white, non-Hispanic Catholics who attend Mass at least weekly, a description that fits Bart Stupak and many of his constituents.

Democratic opposition to abortion has traditionally come in what some Congress-watchers refer to as the "Harry Reid model," since the Senate majority leader, though anti-choice, has been noticeably levelheaded, willing to work with others on the issue, and clear about his support for contraception and services for women and children. By contrast, after the vote on Stupak, it became clear that some House Democrats were ideologues in the fiery Republican mold, just as hardline as some of their colleagues across the aisle.

Indeed, Stupak managed to wrest the role of chief abortion opponent in health care reform from the Republicans, overtaking them in self-serving histrionics and sheer drama. (Although Randy Neugebauer, a Republican Congressman from Texas, helped Republicans reclaim their rightful position as the party of heckling wackos when he screamed out "Baby killer!" on the House floor as Stupak was defending the reform bill.)

Stupak insisted that his willingness to hijack the entire health care reform process was a matter of principle. But his resistance to efforts to honestly resolve funding questions after his initial stand showed him to be primarily concerned about drawing attention--both to the issue and himself. (Obama played his part in this charade. If his last-minute executive order had any function, it was to be a face-saver for Stupak, who ultimately signed on to reform. Instead of restating what the bill already said, the decree might as well have read: "For Bart Stupak, for being a really important player in health care reform. Really.")

The Stupak vote set off a wave of outrage among supporters of choice, spurring Stop Stupak campaigns, a gush of contributions to Planned Parenthood and a primary challenge to Stupak. But the prochoice side did not do much better when the debate moved to the Senate, where another Democrat, Ben Nelson, led the charge to restrict abortion coverage, proposing an amendment requiring any woman who wants insurance to cover the procedure to write a separate check for that premium. The Nelson Amendment also requires health plans to keep funds for abortion separate.

As the final vote neared, pro-choice Senators Barbara Boxer and Patty Murray worked hard to keep Stupak-like language completely banning abortion coverage out of the bill, but they couldn't even make a show of being able to stop Nelson. Around this time, Scott Brown had won the special election in Massachusetts, dispensing with the Democrats' supermajority and putting the fate of health care reform in serious jeopardy. Though the major advocacy groups raised strong objections to the Nelson language--Planned Parenthood called it "offensive," while NARAL Pro-Choice America called it "outrageous" and "unacceptable"--neither advised voting against the bill. While the Catholic bishops had used this strong-arm tactic to bring the Stupak Amendment to a vote in November, pro-choicers cared too much about the other parts of the bill that benefit women to put the bill in peril. Moreover, by the time the Senate was voting, it was clear that abortion rights supporters simply didn't have the numbers on their side.

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