Stupak: My Battle Over Abortion

During the past few months, I often drew strength from a poem taped to my desk in Washington and framed on the wall of my home office in Menominee, Mich. "Bullfight critics ranked in rows," it begins, "Crowd the enormous plaza full/But only one is there who knows/And he's the man who fights the bull."

Written by a Spanish matador, the poem really resonated with me last fall as I wrestled with two longstanding personal convictions—that health care is a national right, and that federal dollars should not be used to pay for abortion—thrown into conflict by a universal-insurance bill that would cover abortion. I tried to warn my House colleagues that I wasn't going to give up one belief for the other. But ultimately they left me no other choice: the Stupak amendment passed last November, upholding the current law that prohibits public funding for abortions—and beginning the most grueling period in my nearly 20 years on the Hill.

The attacks started almost immediately, with activists and editorialists churning out slogans ("Stop Stupak!") and jokes ("Stupak is as Stupak does"). For solace I would go to my corner church, St. Peter's on Second and C streets, and slide into a left-side pew (I am a Democrat, after all) to pray and think. I was disappointed when the Senate did not pass my pro-life language in its version of the health-care bill. And while I questioned my position constantly—am I not seeing the forest for the trees?—I resolved, along with a coalition of other pro-life Democrats, not to back down. I snatched maybe three hours of sleep a night.

That pattern continued, and the attacks intensified, right down to the House reconciliation vote on March 21. By then I had realized that health-care reform would pass, so rather than vote no and lose my power to add pro-life protections, I gathered my coalition to try to reach an agreement with President Obama: an executive order confirming that no federal money would support abortion. On that Sunday, seven or eight of us pro-lifers sat with silver urns of coffee, yellow legal pads, and red pens in a discreet room away from the White House, hammering out the language. We also put in a final call to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which had been among my strongest supporters during the fall.

I was disappointed by what I heard. No, no, no, no, they said. We need statutory law. But an executive order can have the full force of law, I said. Lincoln used one to free the slaves. George W. Bush used one to block stem-cell research using human embryos. And President Obama assures me that this is "ironclad." Besides, I said, it's time to negotiate or lose our chance to shape the bill. Help me with it? No, they said. Won't you at least look at it? No.

That call changed my relationship with the pro-life movement. In the 18 years I've been in Congress, pro-life Democrats like me have delivered, working out compromises that protect human life. Now we had the most important piece of legislation for our movement yet—with pregnancy prevention, prenatal and postnatal care, and care for kids—and we couldn't get support.

In the past few weeks, I've received so many death threats that I was advised to get a security escort around Washington. My wife, Laurie, has had to unplug our home phone to avoid drunken messages from people screaming, swearing, and generally acting profane—usually around the time the bars in their states close. We've had to endure TV, radio, and bus-stop ads. One day I got 1,500 faxes, all hate mail.

Ultimately, what stings the most isn't the hatred. (After all, people hate cops, lawyers, and politicians, and I've been all three.) It's that people tried to use abortion as a tool to stop health-care reform, even after protections were added. That realization has stayed with me in the weeks since, a time that I've spent shuttling between Michigan and Washington, as I have for years. My decision not to seek reelection isn't about anything other than it being time to do something else with my life. The truth is that I've been thinking of a career change for more than six years. I was glad that I stayed to fight the bull. Now I'm glad the fight is over.

Stupak represents Michigan's First Congressional District.