MEADVILLE, Pa. – You'd never know from the back-and-forth between the protesters and counter-protesters gathered in this small tool-and-die
town's Bicentennial Park
earlier this week that they agree on the issue they came out to shout about.
In front of a "voter education" campaign bus bearing huge, mug-shot style photos of a half-dozen pro-life House Democrats who voted for health care reform, a succession of speakers on a 23-city tour organized by the Susan B. Anthony List
claim that the local congresswoman, first-termer Kathy Dahlkemper
, "caved" on the abortion issue by voting for the reform bill.
"That's a lie!'' shouts Sam Talarico, a teacher from Erie who's been following the bus around Dahlkemper's district all morning. "There's no abortion funding in the bill!''
"Shut it!'' an older man in the crowd tells Talarico. "You are rude, crude, and insolent!''
Another opponent of the health care bill charges towards an HCR supporter demanding to know if he ever served in the military the way "my grandfather did and I did.'' No, answers James Salt, a Washington-based director of the pro-life and pro-reform Catholics United
. "But that means you must get health care through the V.A. and that's government-run, so do you want to give that up?''
"Shut up!'' cries the man who's just said he's a veteran, as another of Salt's fellow pro-lifers informs him, "You're going to be excommunicated!''
If you thought this argument had long since been settled, think again. And if you assumed that pro-lifers save their ire and fire for supporters of abortion rights, well, where to begin? Here in Pennsylvania, perhaps, where one of the most obvious things progressive and conservative pro-lifers have in common is that each camp considers the other not really pro-life at all, motivated more than anything by party loyalties. Even with the economy front-and-center ahead of this year's November midterms, the SBA List tour is rolling through this heavily Catholic area because abortion is an issue that always matters to voters here – though not necessarily in ways that are easy to predict.
(Dahlkemper, a mother of five who with her husband is heavily involved in the Catholic "Marriage Encounter" program for struggling couples, narrowly defeated longtime Republican Congressman Phil English in '08. She is considered quite vulnerable in this slightly right-leaning district in the northwestern corner of Pennsylvania, however, and according to the latest polls is ahead by just a few points, despite support from her party.)
So how can the argument over what's in the bill endure, given that it either does or does not contain abortion funding? Easily; yes, Politics Daily's David Gibson explained here
, and here
that the bill passed by Congress and signed by the president specifically precludes federal funding for abortion. But there's still no agreement over the intent, strength, and hidden meanings of the bill's language, and the SBA List and other critics continue to see a back-door entry in federally subsidized insurance plans that offer abortion coverage even if that coverage is paid for separately, with private funds.
Former Colorado Congresswoman Marilyn Musgrave, who's the main speaker on the Susan B. Anthony tour, reasons that if abortion funding were not part of the legislation, there would have been no need for an executive order underscoring the ban. If the president's executive order had really kept abortion funding out of the bill, she asks, then why would Planned Parenthood have applauded the bill's passage?
And the fact that Department of Health and Human Services officials have already reiterated that they'll make sure the Hyde Amendment restrictions apply to all funding? To her, that only shows that it may not have happened yet – but could.
On the bus with Musgrave, a nationally-known opponent of abortion and gay marriage who served for three terms before losing in '08, I venture my opinion that pro-lifers on both sides of the divide are sincere in their conflicting but theological beliefs about what either is or is not in the bill. She isn't buying, though: "What choice do they [pro-lifers who voted for the legislation and insist it does not include any abortion funding] have but to say that? They had the votes to stop the whole thing and they didn't do it. And the irony of them trusting the most pro-abortion president in history?"
Asked why she sees him that way, she mentions his votes against so-called "born alive"
protections for aborted fetuses that show any sign of life when he was an Illinois state senator. "That's hellish, and that's Barack Obama.'' Under his administration, as she sees it, "the left is unrestrained.''
When I assure her that many progressives in general and supporters of abortion rights in particular on the contrary view Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi as having sold them out by cooperating with pro-lifers on the bill, she seems genuinely surprised: "That's amazing. I guess everything's relative.''
But, didn't she see her former Colorado Congressional colleague Diana DeGette practically melting down on the House floor over Pelosi's cooperation with Bart Stupak and other pro-lifers in their caucus? "I served with Diana DeGette, I know Diana very well and that was not her having a meltdown; that was theatrics.''
The Susan B. Anthony List is not supposed to be a partisan group, and when I ask if there were any Democrats she was friendly with in Congress, she mentions pro-lifers Dan Lipinski of Illinois and Gene Taylor of Mississippi. Actually, she mentions both men twice, then says that where the mostly pro-choice women in Congress were concerned, her six years in Washington had been kind of lonely: "With the men, you could get past that'' – the abortion issue – "but with women, no. You'd go into the [women's lounge] and they would all be sitting there and they'd go quiet. But I was so tired anyway, I'd just go home and have a bowl of cereal for dinner and go to bed.''
At a stop in Erie, health care reform supporter Jan Moske says all the shouting between pro-life Catholics makes her sad: "Everybody you see here [on both sides] is against abortion, just like Kathy Dahlkemper is.'' (Here's
the incumbent, who with her husband owns an Erie landscaping business, talking about her abortion views.)
"Everything [the speakers are] saying we agree with'' – except, of course, the part about how there's abortion funding in the bill. "We have great faith; it's not heretics over here. My husband and I both have cancer, but we said let's come and send these people some good energy. They've been convinced that if they show up here they're saving babies.'' (Well, except for that guy, she says, laughingly pointing to a man a few feet away whose hand-made sign has pro-life slogans on one side and on the other, the Thomas Jefferson quote that "The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time, with the blood of patriots and tyrants.'' Hey, at least he recycles.)
At the last stop of the day, in Butler, retired Realtor Jean Bowen volunteers how disappointed she is in Dahlkemper. But then, like everybody else who's told me that, she acknowledges that she hadn't voted for Dahlkemper in '08, either, and wouldn't have in any event: "Oh, no, I'm a conservative Republican!''
Would she have supported health care reform if satisfied that it did not contain abortion funding? "Not at all." And is she satisfied with the abortion views of the Republican challenger in the race, local car dealer Mike Kelly
? "I think he's pro-life,'' she says as we reach the door of his campaign headquarters, just a couple of blocks from the town square where the pro-life event was held.
On that score, Bowen has nothing to worry about: When Kelly and I sit down for an interview, he's just learned that the national Republican Party is going to be helping him in his race, but he doesn't even mention that. Instead, the former Notre Dame football player talks at length about how upset he was to learn that his alma mater had invited the pro-choice Obama to speak at commencement last year. The day before Obama's visit, when he saw a priest protesting the president's visit handcuffed on television, "I said, 'I can't take this,' got in my car and drove out there'' to Indiana, arriving at dawn.
Of the abortion issue, he says, "I hear about it quite a bit'' from voters. "It's the area we live in,'' where as he sees it, confidence that elected officials are who they say they are is the issue underlying all others. "They say, 'We don't trust politicians.' I say, 'Then I'm your guy; I'm a car dealer.' ''
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