Abortion was the key to it all

prolife_catholic_tshirt-p2356234363669023973oib_400Several weeks ago, I received an email from one of the nation’s top political reporters. The bottom line: This reporter could not understand why editors and other reporters in the newsroom could not do the math and realize that the pro-life Democrats in the House of Representatives were serious. They wanted an up-or-down vote on the status of the Hyde Amendment and its attempts to ban federal funds from being spent to fund abortions.

This reporter was reading many of the same commentaries that I was reading, by people like E.J. Dionne and Jim Wallis. The pro-life left had quietly or vocally backed the candidacy of Barack Obama and now they wanted some respect.

It was clear that, with their support, some significant form of health-care reform had a very good chance of passing. Without their support? That would be a really tight situation. It was all there in the math. And behind the math was another reality. It would be easier to pass health-care reform with the help of the U.S. Catholic Bishops than without it.

Why couldn’t other reporters see this?

Now we have this frank headline from the New York Times: “Abortion Was at Heart of Wrangling.” Here’s the lede and it contains two very, very important words:

WASHINGTON – It was late Friday night and lawmakers were stalling for time. In a committee room, they yammered away, delaying a procedural vote on the historic health care legislation. Down one floor, in her office, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi desperately tried to deal with an issue that has bedeviled Democrats for more than a generation — abortion.

After hours of heated talks, the people she was trying to convince — some of her closest allies — burst angrily out of her office. Her attempts at winning them over had failed, and Ms. Pelosi, the first woman speaker and an ardent defender of abortion rights, had no choice but to do the unthinkable. To save the health care bill she had to give in to abortion opponents in her party and allow them to propose tight restrictions barring any insurance plan that is purchased with government subsidies from covering abortions.

The key word? That would be “Democrats.”

The other key word? That would be “propose.”

From the start, this was a battle between Democrats and, in particular, two kinds of Democrats — Catholics who accept their church’s teachings on the “life” issues and the conservative Southern Democrats, often evangelicals, that the party had to embrace if it truly wanted to elect a Democratic majority in the House.

In other words, this was largely about the “pew gap,” that factor in American politics that indicates that the more a person attends worship services the more likely they are to vote Republican.

But note again, this fight was between Democrats.

Remember the horrid red state-blue state maps after the 2000 and 2004 elections? Well, the reality is that there are red zip codes and blue zip codes, which is why all of this is taking place in the House. Also, the press now has to see that there are Democrats that are red on some issues and blue on others. There is a pro-life left. There is a pro-life middle. There is a pro-life right. And, by the way, there is a pro-abortion-rights wing on the GOP right, as well.

So what is the point? The point is that abortion, as an issue, is not a simple left vs. right matter in American politics — at least, not in the House, where zip codes really, really matter. And if reporters want to cover the middle of the voting spectrum, that means covering Catholic voters, all four kinds.

This fight will, of course, start all over again after the conference negotiations with the Senate. But the pro-life Democrats got their Hyde Amendment vote and, of course, they knew they would win it. Pelosi knew it, too.

Thus, the Times story states the obvious:

Through the 1980s, the Democrats struggled over abortion. But by the 1990s, the share of Americans supportive of abortion rights had grown. Democrats lost their majorities for 12 years, leaving the most liberal and pro-abortion rights members in office. As a result it seemed to fade as a public issue. Now, however, Democrats once again have a large and diverse House majority, with more members from conservative-leaning districts where anti-abortion rights groups are active.

The story mentions the negotiations with the U.S. bishops, of course. But there is more to this story than that. Here is a major story angle: Abortion is not fading, as a moral, religious, scientific and political issue. Look at the polls.

You can’t cover the health-care wars without facing that fact, and the reality that these issues are being debated in both major political parties.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    “Catholics who accept their teachings on “life” issues” as you put it gives a partially wrong impression. There are many, many Catholics who were first pro-life then became Catholic because they became convinced that if you are pro-life, the Catholic Church is the place to be. That is the trajectory of my faith. ….

  • dalea

    MeteorBlades has a post up detailing the Democrats who voted for the Stupak amendment:


    MattTX has a diary detailing the Stupak voters and the realities of their districts:


    What the voting shows is that several leading Progressives voted for Stupak’s amendment; Marcy Kaptur and Murtha among them. There is sentiment to give them a pass:

    According to Planned Parenthood, only 13% of all abortions performed are submitted for private insurance payment. Medicaid–yes Medicaid– does cover the procedure in more than a dozen states, so this isn’t going to affect the most destitute. I’m not ignoring those affected, but it’s a small percent, and the procedure itself averages less than $350, which is less than most deductibles. I’m sorry, but it’s not worth sacrificing HCR for something that isn’t actually going to affect very many people.

    by Bornadem at:


    Another look at the representatives by DingellDem:


    If one looks at the 39 Democrats who voted both for the Stupak Amendment and the final bill, the majority come from the Midwest. States like Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, Minnesota, Indiana and Pennsylvania are heavy with this second tier of Democratic objectors.

    What do these states have in common? Most have heavy Catholic populations. This explains the importance of the Stupak Amendment. But it would be unfair to call these places culturally conservative. Half of these states do not have the death penalty. Michigan has a medicinal marijuana law. Places like Minnesota and Michigan have long histories of conservation and environmental protection. Most have school systems, hospitals, library networks and other public infrastructure that are the envy of other states.

    On the other hand, Rachel Maddow says:

    Maddow: “The Stupak amendment . . . is the biggest restriction on abortion funding since the Hyde Amendment, it’s the biggest restriction on abortion access in this country in a generation, if it took a Democratic President 60% majorities in the House and Senate are Democrats to get that I think you can expect Democratic women to sit on their hands at least, if not revolt if that doesn’t get taken out in conference.”

    from: http://www.dailykos.com/storyonly/2009/11/8/802087/-Maddow:-Democratic-women-will-REVOLT-over-Stupak-Pitts-if-it-is-not-removed-in-Conference

    This is just some of the coverage from one blog site on the left.

  • Jerry

    538.com posted a commentary on those pro-choice Democrats who voted to restrict money for abortions. The picture as it’s emerging is more complex than many would assume but one thing stood out for me as a purely political calculation about where the votes are:

    Whereas the pro-life (anti-choice) movement is very well organized and has a long history of delivering votes, the anti-health care movement is somewhat disjointed, seemed to be limited in its electoral reach in NY-23, and carries a lot of baggage — Glenn Beck, Michelle Bachmann, town hall screamers, and the like. And it may also be revealing of how they perceive their own base: whereas health care is a sine qua non for most Democratic base voters, they seem to be betting that the pro-choice position might no longer be.


  • Dave

    abortion, as an issue, is not a simple left vs. right matter

    I suggest it’s a complex left-right matter, with a strong skewing in one direction. Like civil liberties; there’s nothing about conservatism that opposes it, but it’s still generally a “liberal” issue.

    To get Congressional majorities the Democrats had to re-invent the conservative Democrat, and I wish the media would have the gumption to call them that. Democrats will have to live with this to retain those majorities because, as a wise man onces said, all politics is local.