How the Pro-Life Lobby Won a Battle, Lost a War

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House Speaker Nancy Pelosi outmaneuvered Republicans over the weekend in passing her much sought-after health care bill.

On Saturday, she faced a rebellion from pro-life Democrats led by Rep. Bart Stupak of Michigan who demanded that the bill’s government-run insurance plan not cover abortion services. The ruthlessly practical Ms. Pelosi reluctantly agreed to let Mr. Stupak offer his amendment, which passed with bipartisan support. Ms. Pelosi was gambling that pro-choice Democrats wouldn’t bring down the health-care bill over restrictions on abortion funding. She proved right.


But before the vote on the Stupak amendment, Republicans had enormous leverage. Rep. John Shadegg of Arizona urged his fellow GOPers to vote “present” on the Stupak amendment and deprive it of a needed majority. Without the pro-life language included in the health care bill, the entire bill might well have gone down to defeat as pro-life Democrats dared not antagonize constituents, many of whom were already upset with the bill for other reasons.

But the Shadegg strategy collapsed after pro-life groups weighed in. Cardinal Francis George, archbishop of Chicago and president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, called Republican Minority Leader John Boehner to advise against voting “present.”

Other pro-life forces were even more emphatic. The National Right to Life Committee told leading Republicans that it would score a “present” vote on the Stupak amendment the same way it would rate a “no” vote. Republicans who voted “present” would be roundly criticized. Right to Life officials explained that they didn’t believe a defeat of the Stupak amendment would have succeeded in bringing the whole health care bill down.

Although many Republicans didn’t agree with the NRLC analysis, they were cowed by its opposition to voting “present.” In the end the only Republican to vote “present” on the Stupak amendment was Rep. Shadegg. “The simple fact is voting ‘present’ isn’t voting ‘no,’ no matter what Right to Life says,” he wrote colleagues. “Those who say a vote of ‘present’ is a ‘no’ vote are imitating Bill Clinton’s absurdity when he said that it depends on what the meaning of ‘is,’ is.”

As Rep. Shadegg sees it, passage of ObamaCare will end up leading to more abortions, not fewer. He notes that when Rep. Henry Waxman, a leading Pelosi lieutenant in passing health care, was asked if he could guarantee that the Stupak language would remain in the bill, he replied: “No guarantee can be made by me or any other member at this time.”

You can bet that Speaker Pelosi and other pro-choice liberals will seek to strip out the pro-life language in whatever bill finally comes out of a conference committee made up of House and Senate members. By putting pressure on Republicans to drop their strategy of exploiting the differences between pro-choice and pro-life Democrats, pro-life groups retained their purity but may have made a tactical mistake they will later regret.

‘John Fund is a columnist for the Wall Street Journal’