This case was written by Senior Case Writer Pamela Varley for Christopher Robichaud, Lecturer in Ethics and Public Policy, for use at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University.


Case Number 2039.0

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Man on a Wire

Bart Stupak Walks a Tight Line between Obamacare & Abortion

In mid-March 2010—the week before the final Congressional vote on Obamacare—Bart Stupak strove to keep

his footing atop a teetering political powder keg. A Democratic Congressman from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula,

Stupak had long been a dedicated advocate for healthcare reform. He had also been a lifelong opponent of abor-

tion, as were the majority of voters in his rural, largely Catholic district. As the Obamacare debate wound to a

close, Stupak came under intense pressure to choose between these two deeply felt values.

The battle over the abortion question had surfaced repeatedly in the messy, contentious process of drafting

the Patient Protection & Affordable Care Act, but as the U.S. House of Representatives neared its final, razor-close

vote on the bill on March 21, 2010, the issue remained unresolved. With the fate of Obamacare hanging by a

thread, the Democratic leadership pressed Stupak and his small group of pro-life House Democrats to abandon

their controversial abortion stance and deliver their critically needed votes to pass the ACA. At the same time, Stu-

pak’s traditional pro-life and Catholic supporters doubled-down on demands that he and his group hold the line,

even if it meant dealing the death blow to health reform. Anti-Obamacare Republicans, meantime, maneuvered

around the edges, seeking to leverage the abortion issue in a last-ditch effort to kill the bill.

With the stakes high and emotions at a fever pitch, Stupak’s office received as many as 1,500 hate letters and

emails each day, a steady stream of angry phone calls, and death threats so serious, the Congressman and his fami-

ly were provided round-the-clock police protection. Reviled by one-time colleagues on both sides of the issue, Stu-

pak—reluctant front man in a battle he had never wanted, but felt honor-bound to wage—was determined to

keep a steady hand on the tiller, despite the tempest raging around him. But at the personal level he was losing

sleep, and profoundly conflicted about what to do.

Bart Stupak and the Upper Peninsula

By 2010, Bart Stupak was in the midst of his ninth consecutive term as the representative of Michigan’s Dis-

trict 1, a lightly populated rural district so vast, it covered two time zones and included 1,600 miles of shoreline on

three of the Great Lakes. The district had been struggling economically for several decades. The once-dominant

mining industry had all but vanished. There were still jobs in logging and auto parts manufacturing, and tourism

was on the rise, but unemployment on the Upper Peninsula was high, even by Michigan standards. (At 14.7 per-

cent, the unemployment rate in Michigan led the nation.) The self-named Yoopers of the Upper Peninsula were

known for a spirit of rugged independence. They were pro-union but socially conservative, opposing abortion and

For the exclusive use of N. Gibson, 2018.

This document is authorized for use only by Nataejha Gibson in PAD-630 Foundations of Public Administration 18TW4 taught by LINDSAY CONOLE, Southern New Hampshire University from Mar 2018 to Jul 2018.