Stupak's game of chicken

The Democratic congressman continues to prioritize restricting access to abortion over passing healthcare reform

By Kate Harding
Published January 7, 2010 3:08PM (EST)

In case you weren't actively fuming about Bart Stupak yet this morning, Jodi Kantor's profile of him in the New York Times will refresh your rage. He's still insisting that he'll block passage of the healthcare bill unless it includes his language on federal funding of abortion (funny how his only intent is to "continue current law," and yet these new words are somehow so important he'll kill the bill over them), and still being cavalier about the "game of chicken," he's playing, as Kantor puts it. "It's not the end of the world if [the bill] goes down," he told her. "Then you get the message. Fix the abortion language and bring the bill back."

Oh, okay. It's only taken forever and a day to get the bill this far, and it's only millions of people's health and lives at stake, but if it goes down, they can just whip up a new one that sells out women -- probably even more, once he's won the first round of chicken -- and it will all be fine! Except, of course, for women, and all of the people still waiting around for access to health insurance that's affordable and available to them even if they have the nerve to be ill or at risk of becoming so when they apply. Kantor writes, "He did not sound downbeat about the prospect of being blamed for blocking the long-sought goal of President Obama and a chain of presidents and legislators before him" -- or, more precisely, about the prospect of leaving Americans at the mercy of insurance companies that don't want their profits threatened by pesky sick people. In fact, Stupak apparently doesn't expect that the bill will pass either way; he "predicts that the legislation will ultimately collapse for reasons apart from abortion. But he will be blamed anyway, he is sure." Which would work out nicely for him, actually -- if everyone thinks it went down because of the abortion language, whether it did or not, he will still "have won an audacious, counterintuitive victory, forcing a Democratic-controlled Congress to pass a measure that will be hailed as an anti-abortion triumph" -- if not now, then later.

And why is an "anti-abortion triumph" so much more important than passing healthcare reform? Well, "Mr. Stupak says his stand is a straightforward matter of Roman Catholic faith." Which makes perfect sense, since this is a Roman Catholic country whose highest authority is the Pope, oh wait. Besides, it's fair to ask whether Stupak is really driven by Catholicism or by the values of "the Family," a group that "likes to call itself a "Christian Mafia," according to Jeff Sharlet, who's written a book about the organization, subtitled "The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power." As Sharlet wrote in Salon of Stupak's efforts to ensure that "on abortion the Democratic Party is now captive, just like the GOP, to Christian conservatism": "Much is being made in the media about the role played by the U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops, which lobbied hard for the [Stupak-Pitts] amendment. 'We just have to accept this as a Catholic thing,' goes the new conventional wisdom." And if Stupak and Pitts "just keep quiet, the press will pin it on the bishops -- who, to be fair, are more than happy to take credit." Unfortunately, "[t]hat version of events neglects the role of relationships forged within the evangelical context of the Family -- a group founded in the spirit of virulent anti-Catholicism, and which maintains to this day that being Catholic brings you no closer to Christ than being Jewish or a Muslim -- and the growing evangelical movement within the Democratic Party." So it's not even just Stupak imposing the faith he was raised in on the rest of us, but part of "a long-term vision of what Joe Pitts, speaking at last year's National Prayer Breakfast (the group's only public event), called 'God-led government.'" Which makes perfect sense, since that's what the founding fathers intended for the country, oh wait.

The title of Kantor's article is now "Abortion Foe Defies Party on Health Care Bill," but when I began writing this, it was "Democrat Wears Scorn as Medal in Abortion Fight." That sounds about right. Stupak is not only playing games with real people's health, but he's apparently proud of it. "Before, when we talked about pro-life Democrats, you'd get a snicker and a laugh," he told Kantor. "We were just always overlooked. We're not overlooked anymore." If there can be a silver lining in that increased visibility and power, maybe it's that pro-choice Democrats won't overlook the damage Stupak and his amendment's 64 Democratic supporters have done when they're up for reelection.


Kate Harding

Kate Harding is the author of Asking For It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture--and What We Can Do About It, available from Da Capo Press in August 2015. Previously, she collaborated with Anna Holmes, Amanda Hess, and a cast of thousands on The Book of Jezebel, and with Marianne Kirby on Lessons from the Fat-o-Sphere. You might also remember her as the founding editor of Shapely Prose (2007-2010). Kate's essays have appeared in the anthologies Madonna & Me, Yes Means Yes, Feed Me, and Airmail: Women of Letters. She holds an M.F.A. in fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts and a B.A. in English from University of Toronto, and is currently at work on a Ph.D. in creative writing from Bath Spa University

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Bart Stupak D-mich.