Of all the problematic aspects of the healthcare bill still (still!) not fully decided in Congress, none I think is as far reaching as the Stupak Amendment on coverage of abortion. And as much as it is revealing the complexities of applying the idea of "no federal funding of abortions" to health insurance, I think the bigger problem it's revealed is a deeper, more systemic question: is the left really as unified on abortion as we've been arguing for years?
One of the more popular lines people have been using in the new millenium is that abortion is "settled" - there's a left-right divide, easily labeled "pro-life and "pro-choice", never the twain shall meet, and almost all of the rest of anyone's politics can be determined by the simple test of picking a side on abortion.
It was never that simple, and it never quite will be... but I think up until about 2006, it was easy to mask internal tensions on the left while the Republicans were self destructing.
Blame it on the first President Bush and his "big tent" philosophizing, but for whatever reason, the drama around abortion for the past 15 years or so had been on the right. As much as religious conservatives were clearly anti-abortion absolutists and just as clearly had the power to dictate policy, the far right didn't have a lot to show for control of the Republican aganeda on abortion. For all the talk about "sanctity of life", the anti-abortion agenda of repealing Roe v. Wade, passing some sort of Human Life Amendment banning abortion, or even extensively altering laws at the state level never quite developed into much in the way of success. And many, myself included, would conclude that the problem, simply, was that anti-abortion forces were a vocal, but not powerful minority.
It's a real indication of the failure of Republicans in the northeast that "Country Club" Republican types - especially women - were never particularly interested in having government intrusion back into women's lives by excessively restricting or limiting abortions. Or, more pointedly, starting with abortions... and moving on to banning access to birth control. And the minute the Southern, religious conservatives made anti-abortion and other social issues central to whether or not you were a real Republican or a RINO... the exodus of northeastern Republicans began.
A big part of the Republican crack-up - the part that's keeping them from really figuring out how to reassert themselves into the majority - is just what the abortion tensions signify, a whittling down of the right to a smaller, more conservative core group much more homogenous in belief and approach to issues. "Prolife" is one of the easiest unifying points of the current Republican/conservative narrowing, pretty much a given among one and all, and virtually no candidate - even perceived "moderates" - can really voice any kind of support for women's reproductive freedom. That's one reason Stupak was so obviously going to pass - Republicans had no way to oppose it. And you can have unity around an unpopular doctrine... but you can't do it and be in the majority.
All of this means that, with Democrats in the majority, the question of who's got deep internal tensions on abortion suddenly switched, and in ways I think many people were unprepared to face. Yet the indications were always there - in the conservative and "Blue Dog" candidates being chosen, in the soft pedaling of "abortion rights" to rehtoric about "pro-choice" and "safe, legal and rare." Liberals have operated under an illusion that we all supported women's reproductive rights... but never really determined just what everyone thought those rights should be.
One of the most problematic aspects of the "abortion debate" - a debate, as with other controversial topics, we talk more about having than ever actually have - is that much of the terms of debate are mush. Neither "prochoice" nor "prolife" ever really meant anything, and both, really, served as fig leaf descriptions meant to protect people from the extremes of either side. You may not like abortions... but you'll support "choice." You may not like clinic protesters... but surely, you support "life."
For years, feminists who believe in abortion - me included - have accepted that "choice" rhetoric was a necessary, if occasionally unhappy, compromise; you learned to live with the "I don't like the idea of abortions, myself, but I think a woman should be able to choose..." type logic even though, deep down, it meant that, at times, you couldn't count on that kind of support to keep abortion available. It's why we have the Hyde Amendment - you can be in favor of choice and believe, wholeheartedly, that it's just not "federal funding" of abortion... as opposed to keeping abortion services essentially unavailable to poor women on Medicaid.
I've argued - and still argue - privately that the real failure of progressive feminists is to stick to our terms: abortion is a medical procedure, and what we don't want, really, is government making decisions about which medical procedures we like and don't. I want for women what I want for anyone - the right to determine, with a medical professional, the right care for a given situation. Sometimes, that choice is an abortion. And it's not about deciding what's a good abortion or a bad one, who's a woman who's suffering and who's a tramp. It's a medical procedure. And too often, the "choice" argument comes down to feelings over basic, medical facts.
We on the left have no one to blame but ourselves for where things stand, in the Democratic Party, with the Stupak Amendment still (still!) potentially standing as a possible element of healthcare reform. We have for years, blithely ignored that abortion is, for the left, hardly a settled issue, that women's reproductive rights are by no means solidly settled among liberals, and that the reason Stupak passed isn't about the hardline right, but about an inability on the left to use precise terms and come to internal agreement on a position. It may make us a (slightly) smaller party... but like many, I am convinced that most Americans believe in reproductive freedom, and believe, even in limited ways, that access to abortion is a reasonable part of that freedom.
As angry as many people are, as much as people are convinced that healthcare reform can happen without Stupak (I'd say 50-50, at best), the bigger fissure that's been blown open can't be dismissed or ignored. Until we do with abortion what needs to happen on so many issues right now - have a healthy, internal debate that is not about "right and left" but about finding common ground within our own party - we will have more Stupak moments. And we will not know how to solve them. And that, too, is a choice. A bad one.