The historic vote that made health-care reform into law ends a three-decades’ old anti-abortion strategy. The ground has shifted from under the old-line bishops and the single-issue National Right to Life organizations or blogs like those from the redoubtable Catholic League that want to stop abortions by legal and/or judicial fiat. It’s painfully obvious that the previous strategy is obsolete. The unlikely trio of Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), Sen. Bob Casey, Jr. (D-Penn.) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) were three Catholics who drove home this message as Sunday’s contest turned into Monday morning.
To use the inevitable sports’ metaphor, the vote was like the T-formation replacing the Single-Wing or how wearing sneakers in a 1940 football game allowed the Chicago Bears to squash the Washington Redskins, 73-0. The bishops and their erstwhile team of experts lost to a new Catholic team of political leaders who contributed in different ways to achieve a life-affirming vote of Catholic America’s long-espoused goal of health care for all without government funds spent for abortions.
For some time now, it has become apparent that the idea of passing a law to outlaw all abortions was a losing strategy. Thus, for instance, some Pro-lifers had argued that it was a bad idea to limit abortions to those necessary “for the health of the mother.” Instead, “life of the mother” was to be the criterion. But by avoiding compromise, the Pro-lifers failed to get enough votes for passage. Holding to the status quo actually allowed more abortions than would have been possible under a partial ban.
Barack Obama was supported by many Pro-life Democrats employing a new strategy, most notably Prof. Douglas Kmiec, who helped write a platform that intended to reduce abortions by “a thousand nicks and cuts.” He was joined by then-Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, who is now in Obama’s cabinet, directing health services aimed at reducing the need for abortions. For his part, the President showed a willingness to backtrack from liberal cant about abortion on demand as a health choice, abandoning previous promises to the contrary.
The Catholic team winning drive began when Speaker Pelosi reacted to the unwillingness of Pro-choice congressional factions to compromise with Pro-life language preserving the Hyde Amendment in health care reform. She gave Stupak the chance to propose his amendment and it was voted in largely by Republicans who – unfortunately — had no intention of supporting health care reform. The Stupak Amendment actually went beyond the existing restrictions, and not surprisingly it was embraced by the bishops’ conference and the old-line Pro-lifers. Mistakenly (in my opinion), the Stupak Amendment became a litmus test of orthodoxy. However, it was also a poison-pill to reform because it threatened to turn the vote on health care into a vote about abortion.
Just as a team at half-time makes adjustments, in the Senate, Pro-life Senator Casey from Pennsylvania used clearer language to make the Hyde Amendment workable. That language was embraced by the Catholic Hospitals Association, the nuns supporting Network, and Speaker Pelosi. With a promise from President Obama for an Executive Order applying Hyde to new legislation, Bart Stupak himself voted for making the Casey version into law. Representative Stupak was speaking for many – if not most – in Catholic America when he said that because of this new law, not only with the unborn child be protected but “the mother will be insured for pre- and post-natal care.”
Despite dire pleas that the Senate bill was “unacceptable,” the USCCB and the old-line Pro-lifers had been unable to influence Catholics of either the left, the right or the center. Their single-issue strategy could not hold even the Catholic Hospital Association or the nuns’ conference. The USCCB is like a secondary that has just left a receiver uncovered to walk into the end zone for a touchdown. (There was even “trash talk” from Rep. Randy Neugebauer who shouted out “baby killer” when Stupak was speaking.)
The winning Catholic team is now with the Democrats who know how to cross the goal line for health care. I think the old plays have to be wiped from the chalk-board to learn from the historic victory of a new political strategy.