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In Taking a Lead from the Bishops, Democratic Leadership Is out of Step with Voters

January 6, 2010

A series of opinion polls on healthcare reform in four Congressional Districts reveals how out of touch some political leaders are with the views of the electorate. The polls, taken in the districts of four Catholic representatives who supported the restrictions on abortion imposed by the Stupak-Pitts amendment, show that voters do not agree with proposed healthcare reform legislation on the issue of insurance coverage for abortion. The tightened restrictions on abortion were added to the House’s version of the bill in the only amendment that the Democratic leadership allowed in the House vote on healthcare, due in large part to lobbying by the US bishops.

Read an Executive Summary containing the results of all four polls.

Individual District results: Maine’s 2ndOhio’s 9thPennsylvania’s 14th and Texas’ 16th.

Jon O’Brien, president of Catholics for Choice, argued that by taking directions from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, the leadership shirked its responsibility and elevated the views of a small group of unaccountable and unrepresentative men over the views and needs of the American people. He said, “The Democratic leadership accepted ultimatums from the USCCB and used the healthcare reform bill to restrict access to abortion services for American women. The 200 bishops who run dioceses do not reflect the views of Catholics, let alone all Americans, yet they played a decisive role in shaping the bill. The bishops’ lobby efforts showed that their first, second and last priority was to restrict access to abortion. Sadly, the Democratic leadership was willing to acquiesce to the demands of a few members who take marching orders from the bishops.”

The polling, taken in the districts of Maine’s 2nd (Michael Michaud), Ohio’s 9th (Marcy Kaptur), Pennsylvania’s 14th (Mike Doyle) and Texas’ 16th (Silvestre Reyes) shows that the electorate does support insurance coverage for abortion in healthcare reform. When combined with those who either support direct federal coverage or private coverage that would be included in federal plans, majorities in Pennsylvania (69%), Maine (61%), Ohio (56%) and Texas (51%) favor making abortion coverage available in a government-subsidized health insurance plan.

The American electorate wants their representatives to listen to them, not to the Catholic bishops. Majorities in three of the four districts: Maine (61%), Pennsylvania (55%) and Ohio (54%), oppose the Catholic bishop in their area having much of an influence on how their member of Congress votes on healthcare reform. Only in Texas does a slim majority want the local bishop to have much influence (51%). However, in that district as in the other three, the survey findings suggest that a member of Congress who takes the side of the Catholic bishops on abortion in healthcare reform could pay a price at the ballot box. Voters in Texas’ 16th are much more likely to view their member of Congress less favorably (41%) than more favorably (23%) if that Congressperson votes for a healthcare reform bill that “makes it more difficult for women to get health insurance that covers abortion.”

The situation in Texas is especially troubling, given that 2008 marked Texas’ second year in a row as the state with the highest rate of uninsured women and children in the nation.  One in three Texas women and one in five Texas children do not have health insurance. Heather Busby, President of the Lilith Fund, a member of the National Network of Abortion Funds, noted, “Through our abortion funding hotline, we’ve seen firsthand how abortion restrictions deeply affect the most vulnerable women and their families.  And with the highest rate of uninsured women in the country and the second-highest rate of teen pregnancy, Texas women are particularly at risk for even greater hardship.”

Women’s health is at risk now that the Democratic leadership seems to be pandering to more conservative voters. In 2006 and 2008 many candidates backed by the Democratic Party were elected even though they did not agree with the Party’s platform, especially on abortion. This strategy worked on one level, handing majorities to the Democratic Party in the Senate and the House. It also resulted in the emergence of new factions in the party. Unfortunately, several of these new members are now following the wishes of antiabortion groups, including the USCCB. This made the party more electable in the short term—when the electorate was already amenable to voting against Republican candidates—but more conservative in the long run.

Kimberlee Evert, CEO of Planned Parenthood of Western Pennsylvania, said, “Women should not come out of healthcare reform worse off then they were before it. The language in the Stupak-Pitts amendment reduces women’s access to legal healthcare. Making access to legal abortion more difficult, if not impossible, turns back the clock on women’s health. We urge Congressman Doyle to review this data and listen to his constituents.

There continues to be a strong, progressive element in the Democratic Party, including a number of House members who fought strongly for healthcare reform that supports women and includes access to abortion. As we enter the final phase of the legislation, the leadership must ensure these voices figure strongly in the negotiations, and are allowed the chance to put forward common sense proposals that include the full range of women’s reproductive healthcare options. American women, especially lower income women, need this support.

O’Brien continued, “It is clear from the polling that the Democratic Party has made a misstep in deciding that the wishes of the bishops are more important than the voices of the electorate. This snapshot shows that around the country, the health needs of our mothers, daughters, wives and partners are more important to American voters than the views of a handful of bishops. It is as if the leadership of the Democratic Party decided early on that the health and well-being of women were expendable in exchange for blessings from the bishops. Come November, they may regret that decision.”

Media Contacts

Washington DC: David J. Nolan, Catholics for Choice, (202) 986-6093

Pennsylvania: Rebecca L. Cavanaugh, J.D., Planned Parenthood of Western Pennsylvania, (412) 434-8957 ext. 119

Texas: Heather Busby, Lilith Fund, (512) 680-5141