An Interview with Former Congressman Bart Stupak

by Matt B. on March 23, 2011

Congressman Bart Stupak represented the 1st District of Michigan from 1993-2011.

In 2004, I remember feeling surprised when Senator Edwards described poverty as a “moral issue.” He was right, of course – it is a moral issue. But it felt strange that he would single out poverty in this way. After all, most – and maybe all – of the major issues we face in this country have moral dimensions. Nearly every choice that our leaders make has an impact on the way we live together, on the kinds of communities and the kind of nation we seek to build. Our choices reflect our values. In that sense, they’re all moral choices.

But that’s not how we talk about moral issues in this country – not most of the time. We single out some issues—homosexuality, say, or abortion—as moral issues. And we often talk about defense or education or immigration in very different terms. What do you make of all this – of our perhaps-schizophrenic relationship with the role of morality in our public debate?

I don’t know if I’d call it schizophrenic. I think we, as a nation and as elected leaders…have lost our social responsibility to each other. It is easy to put down a group, like you mentioned – gays or even the abortion issue – because it’s a single issue. And how you frame that issue and how elected officials vote on it…reflects whether they are looking at the issue as affecting a person, or society as a whole.

…It seems like right now, our society is, “What can I do to get ahead?”….It’s not necessarily what is good for our society or what we should be doing as a society as a whole.

So, you mentioned the poor. We are our brother’s keeper. But people won’t talk that way or – unfortunately recently – don’t vote that way. Poverty has only grown in this country, not lessened, even though our standard of living for those who’ve made it keeps going up, but those who have not keep slipping backwards. It’s this whole argument like, “Well, they should just pull themselves up by the bootstraps.” Well, that’s fine, and I’m glad many people can do that. But not everybody is there.

What was the nature of your conversations with your colleagues in Congress around moral issues? I know you were there during an increasingly divisive time, but were there moments when you could really get down to brass tacks and talk about the fundamentals of these issues with your colleagues?

Well, we would have hoped that members of Congress would be able to sit down and have a conversation like we’re having right now, but that doesn’t happen anymore. The only time we have a conversation to get down to fundamental moral and ethical issues is probably with the individuals you hang out with, and they’re usually not the other party.

So, I mean, we’re seeing things in such limited viewpoints or limited terminology, because members of Congress are so busy. They don’t do things together. So for me to actually sit down and have this discussion with a Republican member would be very, very rare.

My sense is that in the absence of this interchange, both parties tend to fall back on ideology, on a caricature of their own views. You lose the nuancing effect that comes with meaningful conversation.

Right. [The] argument is always in a committee room, and it’s always very, very partisan. We’re talking past each other, as opposed to each other. We’re really talking to or discussing the matter in front of TV cameras and trying to appease the people back home, not our colleagues….

When you have a major piece of legislation…it’s usually a partisan, party-line vote. So when you would think you would have the most intense, fundamental discussions, so you could reach an understanding, just the opposite happens. It’s so polarized…and unfortunately, personal attacks or “You are not worthy” argument begins.

Last year, you became nationally famous for the role you played in the health care debate. You’re also a Catholic, and you’ve long cited your Catholicism as the source of some of your moral views.

If you would, talk a little about how your Catholicism intersects with your thinking on public issues. In particular, I’m curious to know whether you think it’s always appropriate to allow your religious views to affect your thinking on public questions, or whether there are times when you sought to put your religious views aside and govern from a perspective that might have been more accessible to your non-Catholic constituents.

I don’t think any elected official lets their religious beliefs lead their voting. I think our religious beliefs, much like our personal family upbringings, formulate the person you are, and in fact, the district you represent, because you’re pretty much likeminded as the people of your district, or else they won’t be electing you.

So the fact that I’m a Catholic doesn’t mean I have to do everything that the Catholic Church wants. In fact, I don’t think there’s any group where I ever scored 100% voting with, including the Catholic Church or Right to Life.

…There are some very basic fundamentals in the Catholic Church that we believe strongly in – helping out your brother and sister; abortion is a moral issue within the church, and that it’s our number-one strong principle; comprehensive immigration reform is something we should do, not all this making immigration and the people who are in this country illegally terrible people. There are a number of major issues like that.

…A lot of times, when I vote, I will think of the Sermon on the Mount…“When I was hungry, you did not feed me. When I was poor, you did not help me. When I was in jail, you didn’t visit me.” And then what’s the response, and that’s what you see happen in our society, “Well, Lord, I didn’t see you hungry.” Yeah, because we got blinders on, we’re not seeing it.

Were there moments where you felt that your religious commitments suggested one way of voting, but your assessment of the issue in nonreligious terms suggested an alternative way of voting – where you had the weigh the two?

Sure.

How did you weigh those considerations?

Oh, that’s difficult. You spend a lot of time in reflection and trying to think what is best. For instance, Right to Life Democrats put forth a bill to reduce abortions by 90% in ten years; it’s called “90-10.” And in there, we had contraceptives. Okay? Well, the Catholic Church condemned the legislation, because we used the word “contraceptives.”

…I co-sponsored the legislation, so they were mad, because they didn’t want me to. So then, they put forth another piece of legislation by another member, without contraceptives. Fine, so I co-sponsored that, both of them, because the issue was reducing abortions in this country by 90% within 10 years. If I listened only to the church, that’ll never happen; if you can’t use contraceptives, you have to use abstinence. While you see some improvements in those statistics, it’s not going to solve the abortion problem, let me tell you, or reduce it 90%, let alone 5%.

…During the health care debate, when the Catholic bishops wouldn’t even look at the proposed executive order, that didn’t stop me from still trying to move forward to reach some common ground, because to me, there was a moral equivalent of…not only protecting the sanctity of life and health care, but also providing health care for all Americans, because people can no longer afford it. And that number is growing every day.

…So I had to find a way to do both, and even though the Catholic Church and the bishops were madder than a wet hen that I was even thinking to vote [for] it, you still had to do what you thought was your moral imperative to get this legislation passed…

A quick question about the health care debate. I’m not an expert here, but as I understand it, you initially pushed hard for strong abortion restrictions, but then retracted the Stupak-Pitts Amendment after President Obama promised to issue his executive order. As I understand it, though, the EO simply maintains the already-existing ban on federal funding for abortions. Is that the right way to understand the EO?

No.

Okay.

You’re correct in that…the executive order maintains the current language that’s been there for 30-some years, that there’s no public funding for abortion in federal law. The…Stupak-Pitts Amendment was not stronger language than the current language.

…Some groups or organizations have argued it was. So those members, I went to and I said, “…[W]hat I’m trying to do is keep the current law—show me where I’m wrong, show me the word you want me to drop, or the words, and I’ll drop it out. I’m doing no more than what the President said he would do in September of 2009 that there’d be no public funding for abortion. We must maintain that.”

…Unfortunately, the response I got was, “No, you’re going too far. You’re taking away a woman’s right to choose.” And even though I’d say, “Well, show me where that is,” they weren’t interested in that. They’re more interested in condemning the amendment to raise money for their organizations. What this all comes down to in…the final analysis, I guess, [was that] I was the best fundraiser for NOW and Planned Parenthood and all the rest of these folks, Emily’s List and all them, because they use this bogus argument that I was taking a woman’s basic right to choose, and I never did. I never was.

The other bogus myth or argument out there was that I introduced or injected the Stupak-Pitts Amendment into health care. That is not true. If you look at the health care debate in the committee, you have to go to July 30th and 31st. The health care bill coming out of the House was silent, until Lois Capps put forth the amendment, which then made abortion a covered benefit underneath the health care bill. Then, in reaction to that amendment, which passed, we brought forth the Stupak-Pitts Amendment. All we were trying to is maintain it, so if I overreached there, it was never [our] intention…

…I wish they would have sat down with us….You would think, if I keep saying, “Look, all we’re trying to do is maintain current law. If I went too far, tell me where it is and I’m happy to reflect current law.” But…they did not want the current law; they wanted to have abortion as a benefit.

You spent some time just now talking about our obligations to the poor. Lots of elected leaders spend an awful lot of time talking about protecting and defending the middle class. But they tend to spend comparatively little time talking about what we ought to do on behalf of the poor.

Beyond the obvious electoral considerations – there’s a bigger middle class than there is a poor class – what do you think accounts for this disparity? And what do you think can be done to change our national focus and emphasize our obligations to our brothers and sisters?

Sure. The largest class is the middle class, so everybody’s playing to the middle class, because they want the votes. Most of us who come from [the] middle class are comfortable talking about [the] middle class. We’re not comfortable talking about the poor—we’re not comfortable talking about the person who’s in the welfare line; we’re not comfortable talking about the people who are served at the soup kitchens—because I’m sure a lot of people have never done it. But they’re there; they’re amongst us.

We like to talk about people who are sitting in the pew next to us in church, but we don’t talk about the person who’s outside the church who can’t make it there, for lack of transportation or would be embarrassed because of the clothes they’re wearing.

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