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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Stupak: The Man and the Movement

Given the importance of Rep. Bart Stupak (D-MI) and his allies in the struggle for health care reform in the House, it’s worth thinking a bit about what actually makes him tick. A very revealing moment came yesterday, when Stupak blew off a communication from Catholic religious orders representing 59,000 Catholic nuns urging approval of the health reform bill. According to Fox News’ report of Stupak’s reaction:

The conservative Democrat dismissed the action by the White House saying, “When I’m drafting right to life language, I don’t call up the nuns.” He says he instead confers with other groups including “leading bishops, Focus on the Family, and The National Right to Life Committee.”

Stupak’s meaning couldn’t be clearer: in figuring out his position on health reform, he’s not identifying with fellow Catholics who are struggling to balance various ethical considerations; he’s acting as an agent for the Right-To-Life Movement and its often-machiavellian political game plans. It’s particularly interesting that he mentioned Focus on the Family, the right-wing evangelical Protestant “ministry,” as a greater influence on him than 59,000 nuns.
Why does this matter? Well, aside from the fact that any serious ethical review of the bill has to include the positive impact of reform on maternal and childhood health, it’s also pretty clear that the net effect of the bill will be to reduce federal subsidies for abortion. As Matt Yglesias reminds us today, current law massively subsidizes abortions via the tax exclusion for employer-sponsored private health insurance, which frequently includes abortion coverage. By encouraging (especially over time) people to move from employer-sponsored coverage to the new health exchanges for individual coverage, which under the Senate language will make insurance for abortion exceptionally inconvenient, it’s a sure bet that the overall use of federal money to pay for policies that include abortion services will decline. Indeed, a group of twenty-five prominent pro-life Catholic and Protestant leaders recently penned a letter describing claims that the pending bill would expand abortion subsidies as “misinformation.”
So official right-to-lifer opposition to the health reform bill isn’t really “about” abortion. It’s “about” the desire of the Right-To-Life political movement to score a big symbolic triumph, and it’s “about” the non-abortion political agenda of some of the movement’s constituent members. For a group like Focus on the Family, to which Stupak listens so closely, that agenda includes the Republican takeover of Congress and a wide variety of right-wing policy measures that have zero to do with abortion.

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