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A Moment of Sympathy for Mr. Stupak

March 24th, 2010 | 4 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

Ross Douthat at the NY Times had a moment of sympathy for Bart Stupak today, and it’s a (typically) generous and insightful response to uproar surrounding Bart Stupak:

Here was a politician who embodies what a half-century ago would have been considered the sensible center in American politics — economically liberal, socially conservative — and whose politics represent a good faith effort to live out the social teaching of America’s largest religious body, the Roman Catholic Church. Yet who, in the political arena, really seemed to be on his side? Not the pro-choice left, obviously, which was willing to sacrifice the entire health care bill to the principle that nobody should have to pay for an abortion out of pocket. Not Stupak’s fellow liberal Catholics (E.J. Dionnethe editors of Commonweal, etc.) whose attitude seemed to be, “c’mon, Stupak, just get with the program, and sign up for the compromise that a pro-choice White House wants you to live with.” And not anti-abortion conservatives, who backed him to the hilt not because they wanted him to succeed, but because they assumed that he would fail, and in failing, drag the whole health care package down to defeat.

Ross goes on to sound a variation on a theme he has been pounding out for some time now, the dearth of substantive policy proposals not only among conservatives, and here among pro-life conservatives.

And on this point, Ross is–as he has been–exactly right.  And his contention that “pro-lifers need the Republican Party to feel hospitable to voters whose impulses on social policy tend in a more communitarian direction” comes close to a position I’ve argued here at Mere-O in the past (probably, I should confess, with Douthat’s own thought lurking somewhere in the background).

But his claim that the pro-life frustration with Stupak is actually grounded in our desire to take the whole bill down is (I think) wrong.  Back in November, when Republicans floated the idea of voting down the Stupak-Pitts amendment to the House bill in order to undercut health care entirely, the idea was universally rejected by the pro-life community not for political or pragmatic reasons, but because their operating principle has always been not to use the unborn as a tool for other political ends.

As much, then, as I feel sympathy for the difficult position that Stupak was put in, the pro-life community is not to blame for the Democratic insistence that the bill provide the means to expand abortion.  If one lesson is that pro-lifers need to think more proactively with respect to policy, the other is that when they have the votes, the Democratic leadership is so beholden to the pro-abortion lobby that pro-life measures have no chance of consideration.  And if any lesson seems primary here, that’s it.

It would have been nice, in other words, to end up at a place where Stupak and his crew didn’t hold the keys to ensuring that the bill was thoroughly pro-life–not because in retrospect they proved untrustworthy, but because such a solution would be a better solution to the one we currently have.  But for the pro-life community, any policy solutions have a minimum threshold before they become viable:  no federal funding for abortion.  The Democratic leaders clearly refused to meet that threshold, which makes me suspicious that any policy proposals could have avoided our current maelstrom.

But the bill almost passed without abortion funding anyway, had Stupak stayed strong.  That, I would argue, is the source of the pro-life frustration.  Certainly there are some pro-lifers who are frustrated because they think the bill is an expansion of entitlements.  But organizations like AUL and the Catholic Bishops have maintained throughout that their only focus was protecting the unborn and the doctors who care for them.

For those closest to the pro-life community–those who are most hurt, and most angered–the deepest betrayal happened not when Stupak announced he would vote for the bill, but when he argued against sending it back to committee to add his own amendment to it.  We feel betrayed not because the bill passed, but because the manner in which the bill passed, and because it did not need to pass with abortion funding.

I want to have sympathy for Bart Stupak, then.  And as I have said before, I want there to be a viable Democratic pro-life contingent, not just to keep Republicans honest, but because I’m intrigued by new ways of thinking about the political order and its relationship to the family.  As Schwenkler says, pro-lifers need the Democrats, and the Democrats need pro-lifers.

As in all such situations, the tragedies are many.

Yes, it’s tragic that pro-lifers and conservatives didn’t propose and cultivate more policy initiatives that might have won the ear and attention of more moderate Democrats.  But one failure does not justify another, and Stupak’s decision to vote for the bill regardless was also a tragedy–a tragedy that I suspect those who fought the hardest felt most deeply of all.*

*And yes, I said I would be done writing about this.  But Douthat provoked me, as he so often does.  If only he had written something else, I wouldn’t have to write this.