Skip to content

Democrats Face Backlash Over House Abortion Limits

Democrats have been showing a fresh determination to make Republicans’ near-unanimous opposition to a national health care overhaul – and its implications for women – the GOP’s Achilles heel during next year’s midterm elections.

Democrats have produced a hit list of 32 House Republicans from districts that voted for President Obama last year. And they’re touting a video of Republican men repeatedly interrupting Democratic women during Saturday’s House floor debate on health care.

But that tactic just got a lot more complicated.

There is growing outrage among the Democrats’ own activist base over new and far-reaching abortion restrictions contained in the historic health care bill approved Saturday by the Democratic-controlled House.

And some of the party’s staunchest supporters are suggesting that Democrats will have their own problems with health care – and women voters – come 2010 because of the proposed abortion limits and the Catholic Church’s pivotal role in ensuring that restrictions would make it into the bill.

“This has already hurt the Democrats,” says Terry O’Neill, president of the National Organization for Women, which has now turned its attention to the Senate, where members are considering their own health care legislation.

When and if the Senate passes a health care bill, it will be melded with the House version and sent back to both chambers for a vote. Few are predicting that the abortion limits will survive.

But the party still has to engage in some immediate damage control.

“It really breaks my heart when your supposed friends pass a health care bill for 49 percent of the population, and a partial health bill for the other 51 percent of the population,” said O’Neill. “We’re furious at the Democrats, and dismayed about what’s going on.”

In an interview Monday with ABC, President Obama acknowledged the growing backlash among the Democrats’ liberal base, saying “there are strong feelings on both sides” of the abortion amendment issue. “And what that tells me,” the president said, “is that there needs to be some more work before we get to the point where we’re not changing the status quo.”

“I laid out a very simple principle, which is this is a health care bill, not an abortion bill,” he said.

“And we’re not looking to change what is the principle that has been in place for a very long time, which is federal dollars are not used to subsidize abortions.”

Will Language Survive?

The so-called Stupak amendment included in the House bill would prevent women eligible for government tax credits for health insurance from using that money to enroll in any plan that covers abortion. Of 258 House Democrats, 64 voted for the amendment, along with 176 Republicans, guaranteeing its passage.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops actively lobbied for the amendment, offered by Democrat Bart Stupak of Michigan and Republican Joe Pitts of Pennsylvania. The Catholic Church, though opposed to abortion funding, has long advocated for universal health care as a fundamental human right and essential to the common good. Stupak was among 19 Democrats who in midsummer vowed to oppose any health overhaul plan that didn’t specifically prevent taxpayer money from being used for abortions.

The Senate is far less likely to impose such restrictions. And though both pro-choice and anti-abortion activists say they don’t expect the abortion language to be in a final bill hammered out between House and Senate leaders, the Catholic Church isn’t going away. Its leaders have pronounced unacceptable two bills now under consideration in the Senate.

Barry Lynn, who heads Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said he’s been “horrified” by the church’s influence on the sweeping health care bill.

“What we saw over the weekend was an act of unparalleled arrogance on the part of church officials,” he said. “Basically, they were claiming they would kill health care for the sick and the poor if the Democrats didn’t give them the votes to impose religious doctrine into law.”

“It’s scandalous that this religious group has such extraordinary control over the fate of women’s lives in this country,” Lynn said.

Backlash Among Liberal Lawmakers

By late Monday, Democratic Rep. Diana DeGette of Colorado had collected more than 40 signatures from fellow members who vowed they would not vote for a combined House-Senate health care bill if it contains language “that restricts women’s right to choose any further than current law.”

And Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, in a Monday interview with MSNBC, said that she is confident the abortion language will be stripped.

“We’re all going to be working very hard – particularly the pro-choice members – to make sure that’s the case,” she said.

And there’s no question that they’ll have some vigorous prodding from their base.

“We were outraged that these people – all these people who voted for the Stupak amendment – were willing to just ignore the needs of women,” said Judy Waxman of the National Women’s Law Center.

Ted Miller, communications director for NARAL Pro-Choice America, echoed the sentiment. “We will hold those lawmakers who voted for this measure accountable for abandoning women and capitulating to extreme factions of the anti-choice movement,” he said.

“Our focus now is defeating any attempt to add the Stupak abortion ban to the Senate bill,” he said.

Waxman characterized the health care debate as a “perfect storm” for the Catholic Church because of the narrow margin of passage for the overall bill.

“We are hopeful we will not have this amendment,” Waxman said. “In fact, we will make sure this amendment is not in the Senate version.”

The Democratic strategists who are cooking up ways to get out the vote next year may be trying to make sure of the same – so that health care ends up being a negative next year not for them, but for their erstwhile opponents.


Related stories:

KHN: How The House Abortion Restrictions Would Work

NPR: What Would The Stupak Amendment Do?


Related Topics

The Health Law