The War Within: Democrats And The Stupak Language

The flashiest health care controversy this weekend involved what's now known as the "Stupak" language, which was added to the House health care bill ostensibly to prevent pro-life Democrats from abandoning ship. The House leadership gulped it down as if it were a barium swallow. The amendment restricts private insurers participating in the exchange from offering abortion coverage as part of their policies. They can still offer add-on abortion-only coverage, but the subsidies that the health care bill provides couldn't be tapped.

The capitulation outraged pro-choice women and the left. Women don't often anticipate that they're going to get abortions, so they're not likely to buy the coverage in advance unless it is part of the whole package. That is, not coincidentally, why Stupak liked the deal. Pro-lifers didn't think it went far enough, but pro-choicers believe that it effectively deprives women most vulnerable to rape, incest or unwanted pregnancies  -- younger women, poorer women -- of reproductive health care.

In a sense, the rapidity with which the Democratic leadership caved tells us two things about the larger abortion debate: it is increasingly being fought on a territory that is hospitable to pro-lifers -- and -- that the Democratic leadership believes that it can essentially take the support of women's rights activists for granted. The balance was this: do we lose X number of votes because we don't include the language?

In a letter to Speaker Nancy Pelosi today, 40 House pro-choicers insisted they would not support the product of the House and Senate conference if it included the Stupak language, calling it "an unprecedented and unacceptable restriction on women's ability to access the full range of reproductive health services to which they are lawfully entitled."

Notably, the White House refused to divulge the president's position on the language. By not divulging the president's position, the White House effectively divulged the president's position: he doesn't like the language, but he wouldn't want to sacrifice the bill.

Some Democrats believe that the Stupak language can be repealed at a later date -- but that's hard to imagine in the current political atmosphere.

In a related event, Democrats held a conference call with Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz today to keep the pressure on the women's angle, pointing to video of Republicans appearing to shout down female lawmakers on the floor of Congress.
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Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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