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.
Driehaus’s camp now awaits the results of their request for thousands of documents from SBA List. The case turns on a key question: Does the SBA List believe what it says about the healthcare law, or is it purposefully misleading the public? The disclosures prompted by the proceedings may also shed light on a second, equally interesting question: Does the SBA List work in close coordination with the Republican Party, despite its pretense of being nonpartisan?
On the first question, it is hard to believe that Dannenfelser and crew are truly that deluded. In the past Dannenfelser has suggested that abortions will be covered by federally subsidized health insurance policies in state "high-risk pools," a claim that has been systematically debunked and that a July 14 statement by HHS ought to have put to rest, reiterating that no abortions will be covered in the high-risk pools "except in cases of rape or incest, or where the life of the woman would be endangered." Dannenfelser has also alleged that the law "provides for direct funding of elective abortion in community health centers," which Obama’s executive order specifically prohibited. This misrepresentation has been taken apart by Politifact.com.
In an interview, Dannenfelser emphasized that her concern is with what might happen if there are legal challenges to the law after the midterm elections. "There will be challenges, and when those challenges are brought, there is no reason in the statute to find abortion is not healthcare, as they have done in the past." Obama’s executive order is not enough, she argues; "a statute is the only thing that will do the job." Even if she were right about that, however, it is a very different thing from saying the law itself funds abortions, as the ads have claimed. As Chris Korzen of Catholics United points out, SBA List has no evidence for that assertion. "Why don’t they produce someone whose abortion was funded by this bill? Because they can’t," he says.
As for the issue of partisanship, critics point out that other groups engaged in the abortion debate are forthright about their partisan alliances. Democrats for Life of America, for example, supports pro-life Democrats. Says that organization’s president, Kristen Day, "I just wish they’d change their mission statement, to say they are trying to elect Republicans and trying to defeat pro-life Democrats. I am a partisan organization, a Democratic organization. That’s it—we are true to our mission." EMILY’S List, which in many ways SBA List has sought to model itself after, makes no bones about being a partisan organization: it says it supports prochoice Democratic women, and that is what it does.
For cover, perhaps, SBA does toss some change to an odd Democrat—this cycle it raised $5,000 for Illinois’s Daniel Lipinski, who toed the SBA List’s line and voted against healthcare reform in the House, compared to millions doled out to Republicans. What the discovery process in the Ohio Elections Commission case may reveal is how closely the group works with the Republican Party. Interestingly, SBA List is a major client of the Republican media firm Crossroads Media, along with entities linked to Karl Rove or Mary Cheney, according to the Sunlight Foundation, suggesting how embedded SBA List has become in the GOP election apparatus. When asked about SBA’s connection to Crossroads Media, to which it has paid several hundred thousand dollars for attack ads against Dahlkemper, Driehaus and other Democrats, Dannenfelser said, "I don’t know what that is, I am not aware we are using them," though she allowed that it was possible.
It’s clear that the SBA List is more focused on promoting Republicans than on the pro-life cause. But what about women? SBA List includes in its endorsement criteria being "a pro-life man running against a pro-abortion woman," which by their lights includes any woman who voted for healthcare reform. One fundraising appeal, which was titled "More Nancy Pelosis?" asked, "Have you heard about the wonderful SBA-list endorsed men candidates who are running against women who have been backed by pro-abortion groups?" This seems twisted: Why make a point of targeting such women and replacing them with men? Dannenfelser says they do this because a prochoice woman is "a far bigger threat than a man speaking out on the issue." Says EMILY’s List Communications Director Jen Bluestein Lamb, "Either you are for promoting and empowering women in politics, or you are not. Endorsing men against women solely because they voted for a bill that doesn’t fund abortions—but does keep families healthier— is not a good way to empower more women to run for and serve in office."
It’s a disorienting world in which Democrats are being called to account for expanding access to abortion because they voted for a bill that imposed "the most significant restriction in access to abortion coverage in thirty-five years," in the words of Planned Parenthood’s Cecile Richards. The unfolding process in Ohio will be interesting to observe, but it’s likely that its conclusions, even if they don’t go SBA List’s way, will arrive too late to undo the damage done by its distortions. By then, many of the pro-life Dems who demanded that the healthcare law contain those onerous abortion restrictions, supposedly to safeguard their electoral chances, will probably be long gone.
From the prochoice point of view, all of this does make one wonder: If Democrats were going to pay the political price for a law protecting abortion rights anyway, was that compromise really worth it?