If things had gone differently, Rep. Bart Stupak would have been bathing last night in the grateful applause of pro-lifers who trusted him.
At a gala dinner at the Willard Hotel, the Michigan Democrat was supposed to have received the “Defender of Life” Award from the Susan B. Anthony List, a group dedicated to electing anti-abortion politicians.
But things went the way they did. Stupak voted the way he did — for Obamacare, with its murky language on abortion — and the group withdrew its honor, its dinner invitation and its electoral support.
Like others in the pro-life movement where Stupak was so recently a hero, SBA List President Marjorie Dannenfelser was absolutely stunned by the congressman’s volte-face.
She was in his office shortly before he changed his position, she said, “And he communicated in about 20 different ways that he was unflinching. Up until the last minute, we’d been talking about helping him fend off his primary challenge!”
Now, instead of helping representatives like Stupak, SBA List money will go toward defeating them.
“If it were a different vote, I would hold out a hand and work harder to build bridges, but this was the most important vote since Roe v. Wade,” Dannenfelser said. “It will dramatically expand abortion in numbers and it’s making us all culpable. We won’t be helping him out.”
It’s hard to overstate the distress among pro-lifers at what’s happened. Everyone knows that Stupak won nothing with the fig-leaf concession of a presidential executive order that supposedly reinforces a long-standing ban on the federal funding of abortion.
The executive order has no legal standing and, under Obamacare, will not prevent taxpayer money from surging toward Planned Parenthood and other abortion providers.
Yet even at this dark moment, some see a tiny gleam. Polls have shown for nearly two decades a rising pro-life sentiment among Americans. For instance, growing numbers of people label themselves pro-life instead of pro-choice.
The trend shows clearly in Gallup polling since 1995, when a firm majority of Americans called themselves pro-choice and only 33 percent said they were pro-life. As of May 2009, for the first time since polling began on the subject, those calling themselves pro-life actually outnumbered abortion supporters 51 to 42 percent.
“The good news, to the extent that there is some, is that the moral question about abortion has pretty much been won by the pro-life movement,” says Helen Alvare, a professor of law at George Mason University and consultant to the Vatican on women’s issues.
Alvare points to the unheralded acknowledgement, even during the most fervid weeks of the health care debate, and even amongst Democrats, that taxpayers are uneasy about abortion and do not want to pay for it.
“The fact is that Barack Obama, Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi and the entire Democratic Party had to come to terms with the fact that the overwhelming sentiment in the polity is that government can’t be involved with this awful thing,” Alvare said.
“They may have managed to change the discussion about where we’ll be in a welfare state,” she said, “but in doing so they did not undo the consensus about the repugnance of abortion.”
It may be a long time before activists feel they can depend on “unflinching” pro-life congressional Democrats again. November will wreak what it does. Yet, if Obamacare proceeds (unstopped by, say, the states), pro-lifers agree there must be a legislative fix that will achieve what the executive order cannot. And for that, they know, they may need to try to trust again.
Examiner columnist Meghan Cox Gurdon is a former foreign correspondent and a regular contributor to the books pages of The Wall Street Journal.