David Coates

Chapter 8: A review of 2009

2009 saw significant (and ultimately negative, from a progressive standpoint) developments on two fronts in 2009: on gay rights and on abortion rights.

The record on gay rights was mixed. Initially the year was all progress. Legislatures and courts in Vermont, Iowa, New Hampshire, Maine and the District of Columbia legalized gay marriage; the new President committed his administration (though without a timeline) to ending ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy in the military, and extended benefits to the same-sex partners of federal employees; and legislation (the Respect for Marriage Act) was introduced into the House in September, designed to repeal the misnamed “Defense of Marriage Act.” But soldiers were still dismissed in 2009 on grounds of sexual orientation, and in a referendum on gay marriage in Maine in November, the opponents of same sex marriage prevailed by a narrow margin.

The story on the abortion front was consistently bleak in 2009. In mid-year, Dr George Tiller, a leading proponent of abortion procedures and one regularly hounded on Fox News as “Tiller the Baby Killer” – was gunned down in his own clinic; and in November, as their price for supporting HR 3962 – the Pelosi health bill – conservative Democrats passed the Stupak-Pitts amendment. This amendment, orchestrated – if Rachel Maddow’s reporting is accurate – by the secret “family” of conservative lawmakers who share a house on C Street – not only enshrined the Hyde amendment permanently into Us law. It went further, banning any provision for abortion services in any insurance policy attracting a federal subsidy. That effectively denied abortion to women on low incomes, and denied abortion to women able and willing to pay insurance premiums for abortion services because of the insurance companies’ reluctance to lose access to the millions of hitherto uninsured Americans likely now to be seeking subsidized health coverage.

Bart Stupak defended his amendment in the columns of The New York Times (December 9 2009), claiming that it did no more than enshrine the Hyde Amendment into law, an amendment that, in its 33 year history, had not prevented private insurers from offering abortion coverage. (For a similar view from a liberal perspective, see Phillip Levine, “False Alarm on Abortion”, The New York Times, November 25 2009). Critics, however, remained unconvinced, and moves by Senator Ben Nelson (D-Nebraska) to write similar provisions into the Senate bill were foiled by Senator Barbara Boxer’s (D-California) move to table the Nelson motion. Such a procedural device required only a simple majority to pass; and it did pass (54-45) with the support of 2 Republican senators (Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, both Senators from Maine). This was presumably one reason why Tony Perkins of the pro-life Family Research Council characterized the Senate bill as “a miserable excuse of a health care reform bill” (website, December 23 2009), and promised an all-out effort to protect the Stupak amendment when the two bills were merged in the first days of 2010.

Health reform rather obscured from public view the full range of conservative Christian concerns in the latter half of 2009, but those concerns remained. Data from the National Center for Health Statistics, issued in May 2009, reported that the number of babies born to unmarried mothers had grown from 0.7 million a year in 1980 to 1.7 million in 2007: so that currently four of every ten babies born in the United States are now born to single mothers. The Family Research Council’s Pat Fagan found the welfare transfers associated with single parenthood deeply disturbing: “a massive injustice,” he called them, “married people are the source of a massive transfer of payments to broken families.” And he did so in the context of slight shift in general public opinion in a pro-life direction. Gallup polled Americans on this issue in May 2009, and found 51% of those polled calling themselves “pro-life” against 42% calling themselves “pro choice”. That pro-life majority was a first for Gallup, which has been asking this question consistently since 1995. The pro-choice figure in 2008 was 50%. “In the face of the most aggressive, pro-abortion administration in America,” Tony Perkins gloated, “the country is rallying to the defense of its tiniest members.” (FRC website, May 15 2009). Rallying, maybe, but only just! Abortion remained throughout 2009 one of America’s most divisive issues.

David Coates holds the Worrell Chair in Anglo-American Studies at Wake Forest University. He is the author of Answering Back: Liberal Responses to Conservative Arguments, New York: Continuum Books, 2010.

He writes here in a personal capacity.

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