The successful effort to strip abortion funding from the House of Representatives' health-care legislation may point the way for pro-life forces waging battle in the Democratic-controlled Congress.

Pro-life Democrats and Republicans tried to insert the funding ban in five different committees. Each time, abortion-rights proponents were able to stop them. But a coalition of about 40 pro-life Democrats led by Michigan congressman Bart Stupak insisted they would not support the bill's passage unless a vote was held on an amendment prohibiting government-backed health plans from covering or subsidizing abortions.

House speaker Nancy Pelosi needed their votes for the final bill, so she ultimately permitted the vote. It passed 240–194, with the help of 64 Democrats. The final House version of the bill passed 220–215. The abortion funding ban could still be stripped before legislation is sent to President Barack Obama for signature.

The pro-life members were supported by a broad coalition of groups, including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), the National Right to Life Committee (NRLC), and the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.

With early warning during Obama's presidential campaign that "reproductive services" would be central to his health-care reform goals, the nrlc began educating its members in January, while the USCCB sent out parish bulletin inserts and ran advertisements explaining how constituents could influence the legislation. The groups helped representatives who oppose abortion funding work on legislative language to remove it, and the bishops themselves called House members to discuss the morality of funding abortions.

Perhaps the greatest asset for abortion opponents was public opinion. A May 2009 Gallup poll found that 51 percent of Americans call themselves "pro-life," the first time a majority of adults have identified as such since Gallup first asked the question in 1995. A recent Washington Post poll found that 61 percent of Americans oppose taxpayer funding of abortions.

Following the 2004 elections, which were widely regarded as a failure by Democrats to reach values voters, the political party made a concerted effort to field pro-life and religious candidates for office.

"The way the Democratic Party got such a strong majority in Congress in the last two elections was that they were willing to field candidates who were pro-life in socially conservative districts, and they have now found that they have a pretty strong pro-life caucus as a result," said the USCCB's Richard Doerflinger.

These pro-life Democrats were willing to stand up to intense pressure from House leadership and the White House because their constituents oppose public funding of abortion.

"We can speak with members until we're blue in the face, but if they're not hearing from the grassroots, it won't matter," said the NRLC's Douglas Johnson. He said that educating grassroots supporters about the bill through Christian radio and direct mailings was important, especially since mainstream media developed interest only a few days before the bill passed the House.

The Democratic strategy made the pro-life caucus in Congress more bipartisan. Noting that Republicans planned to vote against the health-care bill whether abortion funding was removed or not, Steve Monsma, a senior research fellow at the Henry Institute at Calvin College, says the recent battle shows why it's important to have pro-lifers in both political parties.

"You pay a cost if all of your supporters for a certain issue are conservative Republicans," he said.

Related Elsewhere:

The Christianity Today Politics blog has more on the health care debate.

More on Life Ethics is available in our full coverage area.

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