Among the myriad lies and distortions peddled this midterm election season by the Republican right, there is one seemingly designed to cause prochoice women to tear our hair out: that a vote for healthcare reform was a vote for "taxpayer-funded abortion." The reason this claim is so maddening, of course, is that prochoicers in Congress were in fact forced to swallow a last-minute compromise in which the principle of the 1976 Hyde Amendment, which banned federal funding for abortions except in the cases of rape, incest and danger to the woman’s life, was applied to the law through an executive order from President Obama.
Much attention has been paid to the agonized debate over that compromise within Democratic circles, but in some ways, the vote was even more defining for the so-called "pro-life" movement. Those who cared about expanding healthcare and reducing abortions lined up in support, while those elements whose fealty was to the Republican Party opposed the bill—and quickly set about misconstruing its contents. A key operative in this disturbingly successful misinformation campaign has been Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List, an organization that purports to promote "pro-life women" in politics, whatever their partisan affiliation—but which is in practice a hit group for the GOP.
Formerly an obscure organization run on a shoestring, SBA List made the big time this year when Sarah Palin delivered her much-discussed Mama Grizzlies speech at an SBA List fundraising breakfast this past May (forgoing her usual steep speaking fee). The group has endorsed in 56 races this cycle, with forty-nine candidates still in the running—all of whom are Republicans. It has reserved its greatest zeal —and $1.5 million in cash—for its "Votes Have Consequences" campaign, aimed at defeating pro-life Democrats who voted for the healthcare law. The campaign has been vicious.
Just ask Rep. Kathy Dahlkemper, the Pennsylvania Democrat elected in 2008 in a district that had been in Republican hands for thirty-two years. Dahlkemper, who became pregnant at 21 when unmarried and lacking healthcare and chose to have the baby, is as dedicated in her opposition to abortion as anyone. SBA List’s Dannenfelser says that she once regarded Dahlkemper as a "beacon, as a pro-life woman in the [Democratic] party." But as retribution for her healthcare vote, SBA List declared war on Dahlkemper, pledging to spend more than $300,000 to defeat her and blanketing the district with billboards, mailings and radio spots blasting her for supporting "the biggest expansion in abortion in decades." In an interview, Dahlkemper sounded weary as she explained how she believes the law "will really end up reducing abortion in this country" because of its abortion restrictions coupled with its generous provisions for pregnant women.
As a Democrat who supported the President on healthcare, the stimulus, and other key votes, in a district that’s conservative enough to make her vulnerable to a GOP challenge, Dahlkemper has lots in common with Ohio’s Rep. Steve Driehaus, who also, as it happens, has found himself in the SBA List’s cross hairs.
The group has attempted to tar Driehaus with the same brush it’s using against Dahlkemper, but in Ohio, a tough law prohibiting false statements in political campaigns has gotten in the way. Driehaus complained to the Ohio Elections Commission that the SBA List’s proposed billboards claiming that he voted "FOR taxpayer-funded abortion" by supporting healthcare reform would violate the law. Dannenfelser defends the ads, saying, "We will not rest until we are exonerated." SBA List sued to stop the commission from pursuing the case, citing their First Amendment right to free speech. The Ohio ACLU took SBA List’s side—consistent with the organization’s belief that the government should not be the arbiter of truth in political speech—but a federal judge ruled on October 25 that the case could go forward.