First, read the NY Times piece on Bart Stupak if you don’t know already who he is and why he’s (currently) famous.

The article highlights two sides of his resistance to the current health care bill: his Catholic faith and the “long, slow burn” of being marginalized by his party.

In response to the piece, Matt Yglesias (someone who I always enjoy reading, even when I disagree) writes:

The expansion of health insurance contained in this bill will save lives. But unless it also includes some restrictions on the ability of insurance plans to cover abortions, Bart Stupak will kill it. And that’s the pro-life position! Perhaps most absurdly of all, my understanding is that this really is the official Catholic Church position on issues of life and death. Taking political action to save the lives of children and adults is morally praiseworthy, but the obligation to take political action aimed at securing legal restrictions on abortions is paramount and actually overrides obligations to aid the poor and the sick.

Yglesias’ response strikes me as a bit unfair.

For one, Stupak’s language doesn’t simply create ‘some restrictions’ on the ability of insurance plans to fund abortions.  Instead, Stupak’s amendment restricts federal subsidies for insurances that cover abortion.  The vagueness of  ‘some’ allows Yglesias to avoid what’s really at stake in Stupak’s resistance.

But surely on that point the pro-life community is acting reasonably.  There is a qualitative moral difference between a state that allows individuals to pursue abortion on their own and a state that taxes others and then redistributes that money in the form of subsidies for the sake of abortion.

What’s more, Yglesias mock-horror (really is!) on the position of the Catholic church also depends upon this unfair characterization.

Yglesias puts the objection this way:  “the obligation to take political action aimed at securing legal restrictions on abortions is paramount and actually overrides obligations to aid the poor and the sick.”  But that misses the fundamental issue at stake:  this legistlation subsidizes abortion while bringing about good, and as such violates the Pauline Principle–do no harm, even for the sake of the good.

In addition, Yglesias is wrong to frame the obligations of pro-life legislation and health care as competing.

What is stake is not pro-life legislation per se, but rather ensuring that this bill does no harm in pursuing the end of health care reform.  Yglesias’ framing of the issue suggests that pro-lifers have used this bill to extend pro-life legislation, but that is simply not the case.  The Stupak amendment isprotective, and in that sense, negative.  It should not be viewed as intentionally furthering the pro-life cause, but rather as ensuring that the means the government employs in the pursuit of the good of health care are not themselves destructive.

One final point:  contra Yglesias, Stupak’s reasoning on this bill is hardly ‘idiosyncratic.’  It has a long lineage, and a significant f0llowing.  Whether that following is significant enough, or will be listened to, remains to be seen.

(HT for the Stupak link to Justin Taylor)

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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. I’m really, really glad you guys made this post; it’s very frustrating living in a society that constantly assumes the worst in Christian ethics without considering the possibility that maybe, just maybe, it is (at least from its own perspective) full of goodwill for the world and a desire to do only good, not evil, whenever humanly possible.


  2. “Yglesias’ response strikes me as a bit unfair.”

    I’ll say. One could just as easily turn the argument around and accuse the pro-choice camp of holding the poor and sick hostage to their agenda when they insist that health care reform include federal subsidy for abortions.


  3. D.J., thanks. I agree with you that it is difficult. There’s more to Christian ethics than most people realize.


    That’s a great point, and I wish I had made it. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.


  4. I’m going to be as brief as possible…

    I live in Canada, and our universal health care is truly a gift. I can’t understand how rich “Christian” Americans are outraged on syndicated “Christian” radio shows that the poor might get access to healthcare in the richest country in the world. Yes, we wait in lines sometimes. But those are queues we probably couldn’t afford to even enter otherwise!

    It is good to work against all kinds of murder. But it’s probably much better to help the poor (and even the average person) and avoid financial crises every time they get sick. Perhaps with all that newfound money they might decide to keep a few more babies – ones that they can actually provide for. A pastor I know (from South Africa) put it best saying something like:
    “I don’t want to hear about anyone out parading against abortions. If you want to do something, don’t just go start an ultrasound clinic to show those mothers their living babies, set up housing and a full spectrum of care for them. Love those mothers and their babies. Provide for them. Then you are really doing what Jesus told you to do.”


  5. “scripture4life,”

    Couple points in response, list-style!

    1) This wasn’t an argument for or against universal health care. I’m opposed to it, not because I’m against health care for poor people but because I have serious reservations that the government is best equipped to provide it equitably. In this, I am wholeheartedly ready to acknowledge and confess the superiority of the Canadian government over our own. But then, I was born in Canada so that’s not hard for me to do. : )

    2) I don’t think that it’s “better” to help the poor than it is to work against murder. The work to defend those who cannot speak for themselves AT ALL is the foundation of the rest of our approach to human life. If I was put in a situation where I could prevent a murder or feed a poor person, I would choose the former 10 times out of 10.

    3) I actually think that the option that your South African pastor-friend describes is what the pro-life community is doing.




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