Interpreting Bart Stupak

Deal W. Hudson
Published December 28, 2009

In 1917, Wallace Stevens published “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” a poem now firmly ensconced in every anthology of American poetry. Generations of students have read it as a lesson in perspectivism – how the imagination can see the same thing under a variety of guises.

Bart Stupak (D-MI) is not the subject of anyone’s poem, but already a discernible pattern of Stupak caricatures are forming in the wake of his explicit rejection of the abortion funding “compromise” in the Senate bill and his rather barbed commentson the White House’s pressuring him to drop his objections. Over the next two weeks, these interpretations of Stupak will clash in the media coverage of the health-care bill’s final throes.

Perhaps the most dominant caricature of Stupak will be “Anti-Choice Fanatic.” For example, the Huffington Post’s recent headline, “Stupak Coordinating Anti-Choice Activism with GOP Senate Leadership,” included a link to Politico’s story on alleged e-mails between Stupak’s office and Senate Minority leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY). A Google search of Stupak and “anti-choice” yields 190,000 hits.

A rather unfair interpretation of Stupak is as “The Bishops’ Puppet,” but that’s what Cliff Kincaid argues in an otherwise pertinent take on the bishops’ role in the health-care reform. Kincaid views the Stupak Amendment as “a ploy designed to keep the legislation alive,” devised by five lobbyists from the USCCB. If it makes Stupak feel any better, Kincaid casts Cong. John Boehner (R-OH) in the same role – “Boehner got his marching orders as well” from Francis Cardinal George who told him “that the Republicans shouldn’t scuttle the Stupak amendment.”

Probably the most utilized charge against Stupak is that he’s “against women’s health.” Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood, began banging that drum, arguing (falsely, by the way) that the “Stupak/Pitts amendment would result in a new restriction on women’s access to abortion coverage in private health insurance.” In spite of this claim being proved false by independent investigators, it continues to be repeated in editorials nationwide. For Planned Parenthood, however, facts are less important than promoting its pro-abortion ideology.

Of course, not all the interpretations of Stupak are negative. Among social conservatives, Stupak is a “Pro-Life Warrior,” as named by blogger Stephen Dillard. More than a few preachers have invoked the David vs. Goliath story to describe Stupak’s defiance of the Obama administration and Congressional Democrats. Dillard asks aloud what many are asking in private: “Will Stupak cave like Nelson?”

“Well, call me a cock-eyed optimist, but I truly believe Stupak will stand his ground,” Dillard says. “Like the late (and great) Robert P. Casey, Sr., I am convinced that Stupak is the genuine article. For me, Stupak is the Catholic Politician Who ‘Gets It.'”

The evidence for this is not only his courage in sponsoring the amendment and refusal to accept Nelson’s compromise, but his remarks from an article in the New York Times published on Christmas Day. Stupak was evidently asked about the Catholic Health Association’s surprising endorsement of the Senate health-care bill containing abortion funding. “They don’t hold the same sway,” Stupak said of the CHA.

Stupak “gets it” because he’s not going to hide behind the skirts of Catholic groups who compromise the Church’s teaching on life issues, and who do so without any authority. By dismissing the influence of the CHA, Stupak not only rejects the cover of a lobbying organization with vested interests, but he also defers to the authority of the bishops and their insistence that the health-care bill be stripped of abortion funding.

In the coming weeks, Bart Stupak will be portrayed as everything from a saint to a demon… or just another political hack waiting to make his deal. Who Bart Stupak turns out to be will be the most important factor in this round of the health-care debate.

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