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.

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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.


  1. Christian Lawyer March 27, 2010 at 8:52 pm

    Matt – Did you actually mean “WITH abortion funding anyway” rather than that it would pass “WITHOUT abortion funding anyway?

    Stupak was able to use the Executive Order to get clarifications he believed were important, which while they can’t override existing law, they CAN make a real difference in how federal agencies behave. Note the Mexico City policy that Bush reinstated and Clinton abolished by executive order. Yes, an EO can be rescinded, but there is a clear Congressional majority who would revolt if Obama suddenly rescinded it.

    Stupak’s vote on the motion to recommit wouldn’t have made any difference to the outcome because Pelosi had enough votes to act without him. It was ONLY when he believed the bill was going to pass regardless of his vote that he sought and obtained the EO and then voted for final passage and against the motion to recommit. Without Stupak’s negotiation of the EO, the pro-lifers would have been stuck with just the Senate bill without any of the clarification.

    Do you really believe that Stupak and Nelson and the other staunchly pro-life Democrats sold their souls? Seriously? These provisions are highly technical legislative proposals that lawyers have been parsing for months. Isn’t it just more likely that Stupak, who’s a lawyer, became convinced that, with the clarifications in the EO, the law was as solid as could be and the differences between his amendment and the Nelson amendment were just non-substantive? Do you think he really would have voted for a bill that would have, as you said in an earlier post, “required” the Community Health Centers to provide abortions? Isn’t it more likely that he honestly believes you are wrong?

    The links to the detailed exchange between Prof. Jost and the Catholic Bishops I posted in the comments to your earlier post lay out the details very clearly. Sometimes good lawyers, even those who agree on goals, disagree on what statutory (or, on a less provocative note, contract) language means. It doesn’t mean one of them is evil and it doesn’t mean anyone has sold their souls.


  2. CL,

    Couple quick points in reply:

    1) Thanks for the awesome and substantive comments. Seriously.

    2) I think the ‘abortion funding’ sentence is technically correct, even if unclear. I was simply pointing out that the bill could have passed with stronger restrictions on abortion funding, had Stupak held firm…

    3) Which leads me to this: Stupak’s line has been that Pelosi had the votes anyway. But Pelosi didn’t have the votes until he brokered the deal to get the EO. Otherwise, why did he vote for it? If she had the votes, and knew she had the votes, she would have let him vote against it to protect him from the inevitable backlash. What’s more, the day after in his Fox News interview, Stupak granted that there were at least 4 still with him–which would have been enough to kill the bill or send it back to committee. So I simply don’t believe him when he says she had the votes anyway.

    4) Stupak may honestly think that I’m wrong on the efficacy of the EO. But I think the burden is on you to explain why neither the pro-life nor the pro-choice community thinks it will be at all effective.

    5) The language about selling souls and being evil is all yours, not mine. I never once claimed anything close to that.



  3. Christian Lawyer April 1, 2010 at 11:50 pm

    Matt, thanks for the substantive response!

    I see what you were trying to say about “with abortion funding anyway,” but I still believe you are incorrect about Pelosi not having the votes until Stupak brokered the deal. Stupak always said he supported the underlying health care reform bill, so he was looking for a way to be able to support it, not looking for a way to oppose it. His past stands on principle demonstrate that he was going to vote with his conscience regardless of the “inevitable backlash.” He believed Pelosi had the votes BEFORE he brokered the deal.

    Even though the final vote was only a 4-vote margin, it has been widely reported that, before Stupak brokered his deal, she had a few votes who promised to vote yes if needed for final passage but who wanted to be let off the hook if their vote wasn’t needed, so even if he and his 4 held out, it was still going to pass. Some of those who actually voted “no” would have voted “yes” if their votes were needed for passage. It appears to me that your analysis doesn’t take this into account. Once Pelosi knew she had all she needed, Stupak knew he could either see what else he could get from the President to strengthen the Senate bill’s abortion restrictions or allow the Senate bill to pass as is with or without his vote.

    While you didn’t use the words “sell his soul,” you did use the word “betrayal,” which I took to be pretty much the same thing. My apologies if you didn’t mean it quite as strongly as I took it.

    I still don’t see any evidence that Stupak betrayed anyone. I think the record shows that he stuck to his position on the abortion languge until he realized the Senate version was going to pass anyway, negotiated the best deal he could get with the President and Speaker, who each wanted a safer cushion of votes, and then again voted his conscience about the rest of the bill by voting for final passage even in the face of the “inevitable backlash.”


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