Stupak: Aberration or Power Outage in the Pro-Choice Movement?

James Wagoner

Progress on health reform legislation forces us to mobilize to prevent passage of the Stupak Amendment. But our next step must be to take stock of why and how we got here in the first place.

The
Stupak amendment, which robs women of insurance coverage for abortion, has
caused all of us to mobilize to redress the damage done by this historic
assault on a woman’s right to choose. While this campaign should be our
immediate focus for the coming weeks, it should not prevent us from analyzing the
factors that brought us to this debacle in the first place.

A few
provocative questions come immediately to mind. For starters, how does a pro-choice
President and pro-choice House leadership end up moving a bill that seriously
undermines a woman’s legal right to abortion? Has the political arm of the
pro-choice movement been so co-opted by the Democratic Party that the
pro-choice constituency is not just being taken for granted, but being taken to
the cleaners on key legislative issues?

Has the
refusal of pro-choice leaders to hold anti-choice Democrats accountable during
primaries earned the movement the dreaded “paper tiger” label thus broadcasting a clear message that you can attack
pro-choice policies in congress without suffering any real political
consequences?

Has the
decision of pro-choice leaders to acquiesce, implicitly or explicitly, with the
decision of Democrats after the 2004 elections to vigorously recruit
anti-choice candidates to build the Catholic “brand” within the party, set us on
the inevitable path towards marginalization?

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While
there may be some argument on the “yeas and nays” of these questions, the disastrous
240-194 vote on Stupak signaled profound dysfunction in pro-choice vision,
leadership, strategies and tactics. Folks, this wasn’t just a wake-up call, it
was a defining moment.

The
pro-choice leadership seems to believe that it has an identity of interests
with the Democratic Party. This is a mistake. While interests intersect, when
it is politically expedient Democrats will throw the abortion issue under the
bus. The events of the past few weeks constitute a case study.

The job
of pro-choice leadership and the organizations they run is to advocate for an
issue. Their role is not to run “interference” for Democrats on the Hill,
forever shielding them from tough votes and excusing their legislative retreats
and fallbacks on key positions. Their job is to advance reproductive rights and
justice by holding Democrats accountable to their pro-choice principles,
helping to elect pro-choice candidates to congress and defeat anti-choice candidates for congress.

It is
also the job of pro-choice leadership to authentically engage grassroots
supporters. Yet at times our leadership has held up grassroots organizing and
protest for fear of alienating Democratic leadership. At other times, the
leadership offers assurances that it supports goals like the repeal of the Hyde
amendment but it won’t invest any of its political capital in trying to make
progress achieving that goal. There is a serious disconnect between the
Washington pro-choice policy agenda and the vision of the pro-choice movement,
and until that gap is addressed our political power will continue to be
diminished.

I believe
pro-choice leaders may have made a fatal mistake in not challenging the
Democrats’ 2004 decision to recruit and run anti-choice candidates. They believed
Democratic leadership when they were told that the pro-choice agenda would not
be undermined by these newly elected anti-choice Democrats because Democratic
leaders in the House and Senate would “have their backs” on policy issues.

Well, so
much for political assurances. Pro-choice leaders must now recognize that they
have fallen victim to a classic “bait and switch” with Democrats telling
pro-choice advocates they couldn’t save them from Stupak because they just
didn’t have the votes. Gee, wonder why? Couldn’t have anything to do with all
those anti-choice Democrats elected since 2004 could it?

And on
the paper tiger front, I wonder why the Stupak amendmentthe only amendment that gored a major democratic constituency—was allowed on the floor? The “blue dogs” had the
votes for so-called tort reform, capping medical malpractice awards, but we
didn’t see that amendment. Did we? Maybe it’s
because the trial lawyers would have yanked
every cent from Democratic candidates and leadership committees the next day.
Nope, don’t want to give the shaft to the trial lawyers; they might actually do
something about it!

And what
about the public option? The blue dogs had the votes to mess with the
compromise on the public option, but did we see that amendment on the floor?
Hell no. Labor would have announced its support for primary challenges on the
spot. Oh, and they would follow through, too.

It
appears labor and the trial lawyers haven’t forgotten the advocate’s dictum as
expressed by Frederick Douglass: “Power yields nothing without a demand. Never
has. Never will. “

I guess
the current pro-choice equivalent would be: “Don’t worry. We’ll cover for you”.

Honestly,
in retrospect is it really any wonder that family planning was the first thing
to be thrown overboard during the stimulus
debate? Or that the Democratic leadership of the House Foreign Affairs
Committee jettisoned the reproductive health integration components of the $15
billion PEPFAR (President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief) initiative because they were too “controversial”?

Given
this track record, Stupak looks less and less like an aberration and more like
an inevitable consequence of a power outage in the pro-choice movement.

After the
rallies, emails and phone calls to overturn Stupak, let the reassessment begin.

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