As I write this I’m watching Mrs. Bart Stupak praise her husband at the press conference where he will announce his retirement from Congress. In the discussion that followed my posting on health care reform, I praised Rep. Stupak for his fight to keep abortion funding out of the health care bill then under debate in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Since then Rep. Stupak has received a lot of criticism for voting for the health bill in exchange for Pres. Obama signing an executive order intended to preserve current restrictions on federal abortion funding. Some of this criticism has been unfair; I don’t think we should stone Stupak.
The argument against the executive order is, essentially, that it is too flimsy a law to stand up to time and court challenge. This is the argument the USCCB advanced in its opposition to the health bill, and it seems legally sound. So the criticism of Rep. Stupak is not that he voted for funding abortion, but that he didn’t get a strong enough law to prevent such funding from one day occurring.
That’s a strong enough reason to oppose the bill, but I don’t think that it’s reason enough to accuse Rep. Stupak and the other pro-life Democrats who supported the bill-plus-executive-order of betrayal. Throughout the health care debate Rep. Stupak, at considerable personal and political cost, fought to protect the sanctity of life, and I don’t doubt the sincerity of his pro-life commitment. At the most, I think you can accuse Rep. Stupak of an error in judgment.
And I think we should be careful even with such a limited accusation. With other “pro-life” Democrats caving in before the executive order was promised, I’m willing to give Rep. Stupak the benefit of the doubt that he thought the executive order was the best restriction on abortion funding he could get.
I’d draw a distinction in this respect between the actions of Rep. Stupak and those who supported the bill—and opposed the US bishops—before the agreement on the executive order.
Since these people—I’m thinking of the Catholic Health Association and “NETWORK”—showed themselves willing to support the bill regardless of the abortion funding restrictions, it’s difficult for me to see how they can be considered “pro-life” in anything more than name. Their actions had the effect of undermining the congressmen (like Rep. Stupak) still fighting for better restrictions, undermining the authority of the bishops and the unity of the Church, and muddling the Catholic voice on this and all other issues on which the Church attempts to speak. Why should a politician now take the bishops seriously when they speak on immigration when they command so little respect from their flock when speaking on the much less complex and ambiguous issue of abortion? The fact that Planned Parenthood has lavished praise on NETWORK is pretty damning, a bit like being named Don Corleone’s favorite judge.
Rep. Stupak at least got a law to ban abortion funding, even if it is a flimsy law. And I actually think the importance of the executive order has been largely undervalued. The reason I think the executive order is important, if not ideal, is that, as I’ve remarked on these pages before, the law is a teacher. The law both reflects and shapes public moral perceptions.
The fact that Pres. Obama, whose pro-abortion credentials are impeccable, signed a law banning federal funding of abortion should represent a significant moral victory for the pro-life cause. And in this struggle moral victories are important. Remember, by signing the executive order the President backed away from more staunchly pro-abortion positions he took as a senator and candidate, which included opposing the Hyde Amendment.
What the order does do is both reflect and strengthen the social consensus in this country that abortion is not heath care. The order may be struck down by the courts, but I think it’s unlikely that it will be rescinded by the President, not because he’s had a sudden change of heart, but because most Americans recognize the hypocrisy of claiming that abortion should be a private choice—that should also be paid for with public funds.
Bart Stupak might not be St. Thomas More, but his public actions are those of a decent man and a good Catholic trying to follow his principles. In the end, the compromise he supported may not be the best law we could have hoped for, but—despite the conventional wisdom—it might be a step toward the culture of life we hope to create in this country. For that I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt and wish him—sincerely—a blessed retirement.