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Health fight energizes pro-life movement

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The battle over President Obama's health care overhaul has produced an unexpected beneficiary: the pro-life movement, which is summoning support and gathering contributions at a rate not seen since the partial-birth abortion debates of the mid-1990s.

Leaders of the movement are not only promising an electoral showdown in November but they've chosen a new villain: Rep. Bart Stupak of Michigan.

The pro-life Democrat's last-minute switch in favor of the legislation passed Sunday has infuriated movement partisans. Mr. Stupak is already paying the price: The Susan B. Anthony List immediately stripped him of a Defender of Life award it was planning to bestow on him Wednesday at its third annual Campaign for Life gala at the Willard InterContinental in downtown Washington.

"Let me be clear: Any representative, including Rep. Stupak, who votes for this health care bill can no longer call themselves 'pro-life,'" said the group's president, Marjorie Dannenfelser.

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Representatives of pro-life groups promise that new ground troops younger than 30 are at the ready and hint at the blossoming of a tax resistance movement if taxpayers are forced to subsidize abortions.

"For the younger generation, this is the Roe v. Wade of their generation," said Family Research Council President Tony Perkins. "This will dramatically change the political landscape in November. Polls say 60 [percent] to 70 percent of the American public are opposed to being forced to pay for abortion."

If the bill is not derailed by legal challenges from the states and if the November elections do not bring about change, "Then you will have no choice to participate in something that is morally wrong," he added.

Mr. Stupak, whose opposition to federally funded abortion had dominated much of the recent debate, swung to the "yes" column after Mr. Obama issued an executive order affirming prohibitions in current law and in the health care legislation against taxpayer money going to abortions.

The last-minute compromise ensured Mr. Obama the support of several pro-life Democrats, but pro-life groups aren't buying it.

"I stood outside Bart Stupak's door as he and his staff cowered inside," said Peggy Nance, chief executive officer for Concerned Women for America, about Sunday afternoon's debate at the Capitol. "We begged him to protect life but he was dismissive."

Less than 24 hours after the vote, a group of pro-lifers was demonstrating outside St. Peter's Square at the Vatican, holding placards stating "No Communion for [Nancy] Pelosi." Other signs urged Washington Archbishop Donald W. Wuerl to excommunicate the House speaker.

"This crisis continues; baby-killing 'Catholic' politicians are still receiving Communion," pro-life activist Randall Terry wrote Monday in an e-mail to supporters. "The ugly news [is] the Vatican is well aware of our crisis and there is just as much in-fighting as in the U.S."

The bill tries to maintain a separation between taxpayer funds and private premiums that would pay for abortion coverage. No health care plan would be required to offer coverage for the procedure. In plans that do cover abortion, beneficiaries would have to pay for it separately, and those funds would have to be kept in a separate account from taxpayer money.

Moreover, individual states would be able to prohibit abortion coverage in plans offered through a new purchasing exchange. Exceptions would be made for cases of rape, incest and danger to the life of the mother.

Abortion foes contend that the separation of funds is an accounting gimmick, and in reality taxpayers would be paying for abortion because health plans that cover abortion would be getting federal money.

Even pro-choice Democrats aren't happy.

Rep. Diana DeGette, Colorado Democrat, a pro-choice lawmaker, said she thinks current law and the language in the health care bill go too far in restricting access to abortion. But Mrs. DeGette said she doesn't have a problem with the executive order because "it doesn't change anything."

Nancy Northup, president of the Center for Reproductive Rights, said it was "unacceptable that a pro-choice president has put his imprimatur on a highly restrictive and unjust anti-choice measure."

"It is tragic that, under a pro-choice administration and a Democratic majority in Congress, harmful anti-choice policy will be the price American women will pay for health care reform," Ms. Northup said in comments echoed by other pro-choice groups.

As for a pro-life tax revolt, it's on the table.

Richard Doerflinger, associate director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities, said the idea of tax resistance has been mentioned in response to concerns about unjust wars.

"This bill says most of the plans getting federal subsidies make every enrollee pay a separate payment solely for people's abortions," he said. "Some people have said what an opportunity for a movement of resistance for people of faith who have these plans or are saddled with one; to refuse to pay that particular fee. If that is the only option we have, that is an interesting idea for Catholics and Protestants to focus on."

Douglas Johnson, legislative director of the National Right to Life Committee, agreed that the health care bill is pumping energy into the pro-life movement.

"Involvement at the grass-roots level is at the highest level since the pitched battles with President Clinton over the partial-birth abortion ban in 1996 and 1997," he said. "House members should not underestimate the political implications. People will remember how they voted on this one. And a lot of young people have been drawn into this as the bill is the first big legislative issue they have been involved in."

Other leaders said they're licking their wounds.

Mr. Doerflinger acknowledged being blindsided by statements in support of the bill from a group of leaders of women's religious orders that broke ranks, as well as the Catholic Health Association of the United States, the trade group for 600 Catholic hospitals.

"Like us, they've been anxious to have health care reform for many years," he said of the Catholic Health Association. "Unlike us, they don't have policy people working on these issues. They fear that if a bill like this does not pass, something like it will not come by again."

He said some kind of summit is needed where Catholic groups could agree to work off the same page.

"In the long run, we will have to have a lot of discussions in the church on how to stay together on these things rather than trying to neutralize each other," he said.

"The church has some work to do with frayed nerves on this. People who are not here in Washington every day … were led to believe this particular bill embodied their hopes for health care reform when it did not."

Mrs. Nance said that despite the brave words, Sunday was "a blow to the pro-life movement."

"Men and women who claimed to be pro-life very publicly betrayed pro-life conservatives," she said. "We are not fooled by what happened. The president's executive order is not worth the paper it's written on.

"We're spending our time now strategizing on what to do, but there will be accountability toward the members who betrayed us. Has this issue gotten more activists to CWA? Absolutely. Has it energized our troops? Absolutely. But it is a moment we'll have to recover from.

"Unless we can turn this around in the states, this will be the largest abortion expansion since Roe v. Wade."

This article is based in part on wire service reports.