The Pain of Bart Stupak

Before the pro-life Dem received death threats for voting "yes" on health reform, he coped with his son's suicide. Sandra McElwaine talks to insiders about Stupak’s agonizing last decade.

Alex Brandon / AP Photo

Even before his controversial “yes” vote on health care last week, Congressman Bart Stupak called his life “a living hell.” His unlikely role as the decider in the contentious health care overhaul had placed the low key, anti-abortion Michigan Democrat smack in the eye of the hurricane. According to longtime friends and observers, it has been a nightmarish place to be.

“This is not a flake. He was an Eagle Scout. I think he agonized, really suffered over this decision.”

Stupak, 58, and his wife, Laurie, received obscene and threatening emails and phone calls, and were forced to disconnect their phone. People hissed at him in the street and he was vilified in the press. Laurie refused to watch television. But since last Sunday, after President Obama issued an executive order reiterating long-standing bans on federal funding for abortion, thus winning Stupak’s vote and those of several other crucial Democrats, the sturm and drang have skyrocketed out of control.

First, Stupak’s House floor speech in support of the health-care bill was interrupted by a cry of “baby killer.” (Under intense media pressure, Texas Republican Randy Neugebauer later revealed himself to be the screamer.) The right-wing blogosphere jumped on Stupak’s announcement that three airports in his district received a total of $726,409 grants as a possible reason for his "yes" vote. There have been violent protests outside Stupak ‘s office, along with a number of death warnings serious enough to involve the Capitol Hill police and FBI. Being “ Stupaked”—stabbed in the back -is now part of the conservative lexicon.

How did this relatively obscure nine-term legislator from the remote Upper Peninsula end up at the crux of this rancorous debate, excoriated by both the left and the right?

It depends on whom you ask. Pro-choice Democrats point out that the word “abortion” never appeared in early drafts of the health-care reform legislation, and that it is in large part because of Bart Stupak that the perennially controversial subject became so central in the health care debate.

But according to former Republican Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, Stupak simply “sold out.” Gingrich describes Stupak as “a nice, honest, decent throw back to a simpler America,” and blames the Democratic hierarchy for bullying him into submission. “Reid and Pelosi put so much pressure on him they wore him out. They ostracized him and isolated him from his own party. It was a scene straight out of Chicago mob politics,” Gingrich says.

(One Republican even reports Stupak wept openly as he pushed the electronic button for that final “yes” vote.)

For Bill Ballenger, editor of the newsletter Inside Michigan Politics, Stupak was an odd choice to become a high profile player in the health reform battles. “He was never a leader, never flamboyant,” says Ballenger, who has covered the congressman since his days in the Michigan House of Representatives. “He was always a back-bencher, earnest, hardworking, and principled. This is not a flake. He was an Eagle Scout. I think he agonized, really suffered over this decision.”

Coping with pain is not new to Stupak or Laurie, a former mayor of their hometown of Menominee. On Mother’s Day of 2000 they came home to find their fun-loving, basketball-playing 17-year old son, BJ, had put a gun to his head and ended his own life. Horrified and mystified, the Stupaks began to investigate a possible cause, and came up with a prescription drug BJ was taking for acne, Accutane. Searching the Internet, they discovered reports of depression and suicides all potentially linked to the medication. There was even a warning from the Food and Drug Administration about possible psychological affects.

The Stupaks went public with their grief and Bart testified before the House Energy and Commerce Committee's Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee during a 2002 hearing on the safety of Accutane, which he believes contributed to his son's death. Their aim was to raise public awareness and ensure to that other families were spared the same type of wrenching heart ache they had endured.

Today as the Congressman heads home for Easter break, he faces a different type of angst—rage from anti-abortion rights voters. The vociferous Tea Party is already making plans to set up shop in his emotionally charged district.

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“Everybody is mad at him,” says Connie Saltonstall, his Democratic primary opponent. “The liberals because he threatened to block the bill, the conservatives because they feel betrayed. He crossed the line, promoted himself over the needs of the district, and people have lost trust in him. Nobody had any idea what he was going to do next.”

Stupak, one of 10 children from a large right-to-life Catholic family, maintains he has always been in favor of health-care reform, going back to his time in the Michigan state legislature, and that his goal was always to see reform pass while adhering to his lifelong anti-abortion principles. He claims he has no regrets. “If both sides are mad at me, I guess I did the right thing,” he told John King of CNN, adding, “When you do legislation there has got to be a common ground. I was able to reach it while still honoring the principle of the sanctity of life.”

He went on to point out that the health-care bill expands access to both pre and post-natal care and is a pro-family piece of legislation that will provide 32 million Americans with high-quality affordable healthcare.

But what ultimately changed his mind?

Some credit Stupak’s longtime mentor, veteran Michigan Congressman John Dingell for laying the groundwork. According to sources, two days before the final vote Dingell took Stupak aside and told him about the executive order, suggesting the timing was right to make the switch to the “yes” column.

Then White House Counsel Robert Bauer began his shuttle diplomacy between 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. and Capitol Hill, working with Stupak and a cadre of pro-life Democrats to draft the executive order, which fell short of Stupak’s demand for a total ban of abortion coverage in the new insurance exchanges, but reiterated language already in the bill preventing public funds from paying for the procedure. It was a daunting two-day process to craft and sort out the language and details and get all of the players, including pro-choicers, to sign-on. Stupak called Bauer’s participation” extremely critical.”

So what lies ahead on the still bumpy road for both Stupak and health-care reform? Bill Ballenger believes Michigan voters’ memories are short and the vitriol will taper off. He swears that Stupak remains invulnerable in his blue-collar out of the way district, and “will kill any political challenger “ next fall.

Gingrich, meanwhile, predicts Congress will get “tougher, meaner, and nastier than ever. There will be a horrendous fight over the next three years,” he says, leading Obama to be a one-term president. ”And in February 2013,” he promises, “this bill will be repealed”—regardless of what happens to Bart Stupak.

Sandra McElwaine is a Washington-based journalist. She has been a reporter for The Washington Star, The Baltimore Sun, a correspondent for CNN and People, and Washington editor of Vogue and Cosmopolitan. Currently she writes for The Daily Beast, The Washington Post, Time, and Forbes.