Double Trouble Brewing for Anti-Abortion Democrats?

Anti-abortion Democrats who voted for health care bill will be targeted in Nov.

March 24, 2010, 4:55 PM

March 25, 2010— -- Just days after the historic health care bill became law, abortion activists on both sides of the political aisle are preparing the battleground for November's mid-term election, which could see a revival of the hot-button issue.

The health care legislation signed by President Obama Tuesday was widely denounced by both abortion rights and anti-abortion groups. Both sides charge that the law benefits the other side and infringes on Americans' rights.

Obama's executive order, which he signed Wednesday, reaffirmed that no federal funds will go toward abortion. But abortion groups on both sides agree on one point: that the order was merely for symbolic political purposes.

The uproar from all fronts has raised questions about the political future of anti-abortion Democrats who voted for the health care bill after Obama promised to issue the executive order.

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Abortion activists on both sides are raising funds to challenge these Democrats, many of whom are in particularly vulnerable districts.

The White House insists that the executive order maintains the status quo on abortion, and that's not what the health care law was ever about. The order is intended to ensure that current law limiting federal funding for abortion is maintained and it will extend those restrictions to the newly created health insurance exchanges. Under the current law, federal funds cannot go toward abortion except in cases of rape, incest and when the life of the pregnant woman is at risk.

States would be responsible for checking whether insurers are complying.

Under the new health care law, insurance companies participating in the exchange -- a marketplace where people will be able to shop for coverage -- must offer at least one plan in each state exchange that doesn't include abortions. However, they're not required to offer a plan that coveres abortions.

Those who join a plan that offers abortion would have to pay a minimum of $1 with another check because the abortion funds have to be kept separate.

The law expands funding for community health centers but prevents them from using government funds to provide abortion.

The abortion provisions have irked groups on both sides. National Organization for Women's president Terry O'Neill says the law is "devastating" because it creates a bureaucracy that will ultimately lead to private insurance companies stripping away abortion coverage altogether.

"The Senate language itself already continues the ban on federal funding for abortion... and expands that into the private sector," said Susan Wood, a professor at George Washington University's School of Public Health and Health Services.

The complexity of collecting and sorting out the two different funds, Wood said, is likely to cause logistical headaches.

"There's likely to be a reduction both in the availability of insurance that covers abortion services and there will be a reduction in those women who decide that they should pay that separate fee," Wood said.

But anti-abortion groups aren't happy either. Charmaine Yoest, president of Americans United for Life, a leading anti-abortion legal and public policy organization, dubbed the abortion language a "complete charade" and said the separate fee does little to prevent federal funds from going to abortion.

Both sides are gearing up to take anti-abortion Democrats head-on in the upcoming elections; chief among them is Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., who led the anti-abortion Democratic group and was key in inking a deal with the Democratic leadership that led the group to vote for the health care bill in exchange for the executive order.

In retaliation, the anti-abortion Susan B. Anthony List stripped Stupak of their "Defender of Life" award, and is vowing to drive out all House members who supported the bill.

Stupak, like many of his counterparts, is from a Republican-leaning district that George W. Bush won both in 2000 and 2004, even though Bush lost Michigan. Obama barely carried this district, winning by 2 percent, in part because Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., fully pulled out of competition in Michigan more than a month before Election Day.

Such statistics could spell trouble for lawmakers like Stupak, especially with the funds that are being raised to oust them.

The conservative Family Research Council is planning to spend at least $2 million mostly on Republicans who are running against politicians who voted for the health care bill. The National Republican Congressional Committee is specifically targeting anti-abortion Democrats in vulnerable districts who voted for the health care bill.

Health Care Law Incites Abortion Activists

Some politicos say the issue of abortion is likely to lose steam by the time the elections come around, but anti-abortion groups are vowing to keep the issue in the forefront.

"People will remember this vote," said Tom McClusky, vice president for government affairs for the Family Research Council. "People are more invigorated than ever. I don't see that passion going away."

The Family Research Council, McClusky said, has already started endorsing and funding candidates.

Yoest also believes the momentum is unlikely to die down.

"I think this is going to have very far reaching ramifications," she said. The anti-abortion Democrats who voted for the health care bill "will absolutely have real difficulties defending themselves in front of voters."

It's not just the anti-abortion groups these lawmakers will have to worry about. Some abortion rights groups, furious that the Hyde amendment -- the current abortion law -- was not repealed, are also vowing a tough fight.

"We believe very strongly that Mr. Stupak and Mr. [Joseph] Pitts don't belong in Congress and we are determined to get them out," O'Neill said. Pitts, R-Pa., is a leading anti-abortion member of the House. "We would not be attacking them if we didn't have strong feminist candidates," O'Neill added.

The lesson they've learned from this health care debate, feminist groups say, is that they need more supporters in positions of power.

"We need many more feminist women. We're only at 17 percent in Congress, that's not critical mass," O'Neill said.

NOW and its partner organizations are trying to launch a grassroots effort to raise money and support for candidates, such as Connie Saltonstall, who is challenging Stupak in the Democratic primary in Michigan in August.

It could be a tough election year for some of these anti-abortion Democrats who sided with their party's leadership at the last minute.

But it may be too soon to tell, and some experts say the abortion issue could very well phase out in time, as many issues do in Washington.

"Americans right now are deeply consumed with the economy, the war, with our status in the world and other such issues," said Rachel Laser, director of the culture program at Third Way, a liberal think tank. "Abortion at this level -- now that it's been decided and it's over -- is unlikely to upset the balance or be a decisive backer in any way."

ABC News' David Chalian contributed to this report.