Stupaking the States

Montana Plate by Spappy.joneS

Charles E. Van Sant likes fishing, hunting, and tennis. He does not like abortion. As a 66-year-old Baptist with a seminary degree, his view is not a rare one. He just happens to be one of 120 members in Florida’s House of Representatives, where he recently filed a provocative bill to outlaw abortion entirely.

Abortion opponents like Van Sant are turning to a strategy deemed successful with that other bastion of conservative Christianity: fighting gay marriage. As Proposition 8 proved in California, it need not require a nationwide opposition. Same-sex marriage could be defeated powerfully a state at a time.

Now, a year into the Obama era, it appears that pro-lifers are adapting just that approach, chipping away at abortion protections state by state. At the same time, abortion has emerged on the national stage as possibly the linchpin issue that will determine whether comprehensive health care reform happens or doesn’t.

Florida joins a flurry of states hosting similar legislation. Lawmakers in Nebraska are considering outlawing abortion after the 20th week of pregnancy. A pending Utah bill would erase the line separating illegal abortion from criminal homicide. In Missouri, a state senator (and another Baptist), is sponsoring legislation that would turn into law tactics usually reserved for activists—requiring women to have “an opportunity” to view the ultrasound and hear the heartbeat of the unborn child just before the procedure.

These bills deal primarily with what one pro-life leader calls “personhood in the womb.” This idea has long been at the center of the religious focus on abortion: if life begins at conception, abortion is always, unequivocally, the taking of a life, and thus a sin. The state proposals tend to either criminalize a step in the abortion process or marshal in laws that would change the legal status of unborn children. Colorado legislators, for instance, recently defeated a bill intended as a step towards defining a fetus as a full human.

Some champions of these state bills are very forthcoming about their motivating religious convictions. “I just felt like we’re destroying a lot of Florida’s children, and we need to stop,” Van Sant told the St. Augustine Record. “And I felt led by the Lord to do that.”

Still others use a less sacrosanct appeal. Supporters of the Utah bill rallied around a devastating story of domestic violence against a pregnant woman. Some politicians leading the national anti-abortion push against health care reform use language relatively devoid of religious buzzwords.


Abortion rather stealthily reemerged in national politics largely due to Representative Bart Stupak, a conservative Democrat from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Last summer, Stupak threw a wrench in his party’s health care reform efforts, threatening to crush the House bill over its supposed support for abortion funding. Stupak introduced an amendment that—in a shrewd display of political maneuvering—passed thanks to the overwhelming support of Republicans who, incidentally, were in near unanimous opposition to the bill itself.

Stupak made quite a splash over the summer. Now, with health care reform finally on track for completion, he is threatening to hijack the process again.

As the House approaches a final vote on the Senate version, Stupak claims he has 12 other Democrats ready to join him in blocking the bill due to its abortion language. “I want to see healthcare,” Stupak told Reuters. “But we’re not going to bypass the principles of belief that we feel strongly about.”

Stupak has made it clear that his principles stem from his Roman Catholicism. Yet his appeal is rooted less in religion than in his image as an advocate for the public’s views on abortion. Defending himself in a New York Times op-ed last December, Stupak made not one mention of his faith or the moral basis for opposing abortion. Instead, he trumpeted the public’s disapproval of abortion funding in the health care legislation.

His stance is deflated a bit by a Pew Research Center poll from November that found among people opposed to health care reform, federal funding for abortion was a low motivator. While abortion was more of a factor for white evangelicals and Catholics, a mere 3% of respondents “volunteer abortion as a principal reason for their opposition.”

Still, one powerful religious institution remains vocal on the issue in the health care debate. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) reportedly loomed large behind the Stupak amendment, lobbying Republicans to get behind the measure. The bishops, as Stupak told Newsweek recently, were “very, very, very engaged” in the process. They also continue to voice clear opposition to the Senate bill.

Stupak’s central argument—that the Senate bill expands funding for abortions—has been debunked. In an eviscerating piece, the Washington Post’s T.R. Reid unearths UN data demonstrating a clear relationship between comprehensive, affordable health care and abortion reduction. “It’s only in the United States,” Reid concludes, “that opponents of abortion are fighting against expanded health-care coverage—a policy step that has been proved around the world to limit abortions.”

Yet the pro-life Democrat has demonstrated the vitality of the issue by essentially holding the bill hostage and teasingly flipping where he stands. On Monday night, Stupak signaled that his beef with the bill might be resolved, telling the AP, “I think we can get there.” But then, a day later, he backtracked, reassuring a conservative magazine that “there’s no such thing” as a compromise.

Stupak’s holdup arrives on the heels of a new Gallup poll that reveals an electorate the most sharply divided on abortion along partisan lines since Roe v. Wade. This may simply be a reflection of the larger rightward movement of the national GOP, as the anti-abortion movement is now solidly aligned with one national party.

In an effort to expand their ranks, anti-abortion activists launched a concerted effort to reach out to African-American communities. The efforts move through the powerful, often socially conservative, institution of the black church. But it is centered in an appeal to the—all too real—history of systemic, racial violence. One anti-abortion politician, Rep. Trent Franks (R-AZ), took the prize for most artless, inane deployment of this effort, calling the rate of abortion among African-Americans worse than slavery.

Franks has rightfully taken plenty of guff for his sheer stupidity. But there was sincerity behind his remarks. Religious pro-lifers are inclined to view abortion as genocide, on par with other historic travesties and equally morally unambiguous.

These renewed national and local efforts to combat abortion thrive on a delicate balance mastered by conservative Christianity. Advocates maintain the position of a persecuted few. Many of the state bills, like Van Sant’s, stand little chance of moving through their legislatures, let alone the presumptive legal battles thereafter. And yet, anti-abortion proponents increasingly rely on a message that their views are consistent with those held by a wide majority.

This logic explains why one comment from Stupak is perhaps his most religious. Lamenting the state of pro-life Democrats to the Times, Stupak concluded, “We’re members without a party.” With this, Stupak casts himself as the martyr and cross-bearer of an issue that just can’t escape the psyche of American religion. This fuels his intransigence. And his outsider posturing. Asked about Congressional leaders, Stupak stated clearly, “They’re ignoring me.”

As the final vote approaches, it looks increasingly like the bishops, Stupak, and his unspecified Congressional cohorts versus everyone else.

Sr. Carol Keehan, the president and CEO of Catholic Health World, came out in support of the bill. Catholics United joined in, bombarding the USCCB with missives to repeal their opposition to the bill. One pro-life evangelical pastor countered the bishops, telling the AP, “If you are really looking to reduce the number of abortions in America, one of the things that will make that happen is to have comprehensive health care coverage.” Thousands of Catholic nuns broke from the Bishops to endorse the bill.

Twenty-five pro-life religious leaders sent a letter to Congress voicing their support for the Senate bill’s treatment of abortion funding. While it urges a measured caution on the bill’s abortion language, the letter clearly states the priority of passing health care reform, calling it “essential to human dignity.”

A verdict on the reform bill will likely arrive this weekend. But there’s no telling what could happen next, even if the measure passes. Conservative state lawmakers are already scheming up ways to reject reform, proposing laws for states to “opt-out” of mandated coverage. If the abortion issue can stick to health care, legislation like Van Sant’s could edge closer to a reality.

Mark Bergen is a contributing editor at KtB. He lives in Chicago and blogs here.