By Dan Gilgoff, God & Country
As abortion rights groups slam Democrats for allowing a strict prohibition on federally subsidized abortion coverage in the House healthcare bill, antiabortion groups find themselves in an unusual position, given Democratic control in Washington: They're cautiously optimistic about a victory on healthcare.
"The momentum is in the pro-life direction," says Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the antiabortion group Susan B. Anthony List.
Sizing up chances of the House's antiabortion language surviving in a final version of a healthcare overhaul, she says, "This is now a doable project."
For some antiabortion activists, a healthcare reform victory would mean that the Stupak-Pitts amendment, the House's ban on abortion coverage in a public health-insurance option or in federally subsided healthcare plans, survives in a final healthcare bill that lands on President Obama's desk.
Other abortion foes, meanwhile, have set their sites higher, aiming to totally scuttle a healthcare overhaul. With the possibility of enough antiabortion Democrats in the Senate or House refusing to sign off on a bill that includes a softer abortion funding ban than Stupak-Pitts and with many abortion rights Democrats vowing to refuse to support a bill with Stupak-Pitts, some conservative activists are hopeful about bringing healthcare down altogether.
"It looks to me like there's a stalemate, and if there's a stalemate, we win," says Jill Stanek, a prominent antiabortion activist and blogger who is based outside Chicago. "I think we have a good chance of winning on this, of shutting down the entire healthcare bill."
In a weekend interview on CNN, White House Senior Adviser David Axelrod suggested that Obama wanted to alter the Stupak-Pitts language because he felt it moved federal abortion policy in the antiabortion direction. "I think it's fair to say the bill Congress passed does change the status quo," Axelrod said, referring to the House bill. "But I believe there are discussions ongoing as to how to change it accordingly."
But Michigan Rep. Bart Stupak, the Democrat who coauthored the antiabortion amendment, warned today that an attempt to strip the amendment would jeopardize its chances of surviving a second House vote. "They're not going to take it out—if they do, healthcare will not move forward," Stupak told Fox News this morning. "We won fair and square. . . . That's why Mr. Axelrod's not a legislator. He doesn't really know what he's talking about."
Not all antiabortion activists are hopeful that Stupak-Pitts will survive. Tom McClusky, senior vice president of Family Research Council Action, predicts the amendment will be stripped in negotiations on the bill between the House and Senate—and that the Democratic leadership can convince antiabortion lawmakers to support that version. "They can do anything in conference," says McClusky, referring to the negotiation process. "Pelosi is a very good speaker, and she knows there are ways to get people to vote your way, like earmarks."
But Deal Hudson, a conservative Catholic activist who advised George W. Bush, predicts that Stupak-Pitts will survive—and will politically benefit the Democrats. "The Democratic Party needs to regain a pro-life voice that is not constantly quashed by pro-choice interest groups," he says. "So this is a huge step forward for them."
Hudson still opposes Democratic-led healthcare plans, partly because he thinks they'll give courts an opportunity to mandate federally funded abortion in a government-run healthcare plan. But like other antiabortion activists, he's hopeful that Stupak-Pitts will survive. "If a bill comes out of the Senate, the amendment will be in it," Hudson says. "Then it's up to the Democratic leadership to convince the ardent pro-choicers that they're better off with an abortion funding ban than without a healthcare bill."
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Corrected on 11/18/2009: An earlier version of this story contained a sentence that should have said "anti-abortion groups find themselves in an unusual position" in being cautiously optimistic about a victory on healthcare.