Former U.S. Rep. Steve Driehaus (D-Ohio), who lost his seat last November to Republican Steve Chabot, is suing an anti-abortion group for making statements that he says misled voters about his stance on abortion, leading to his demise at the polls.
In his defamation lawsuit, Driehaus argues that the Susan B. Anthony List lied about him in public statements and then sued him for trying to stop the group from posting misleading billboards, thereby “depriving him of his livelihood.” Driehaus, who campaigned as an anti-abortion candidate, voted for the controversial national health care law, which many anti-abortion activists maintain supports taxpayer-funded abortion. Driehaus argued and still maintains that the claim was false, and that the law bars any federal funding of abortion.
Driehaus’s suit is unethical and ridiculous. His lawsuit, if successful or even if it goes to trial, is an attempt to restrict political speech and vigorous democratic debate. No elected official has a right to stay in office, and the courts shouldn’t be asked or permitted to inquire into whether an opponent’s claim or argument made in the process of a political campaign is a lie, a misrepresentation, an exaggeration, a fabrication, a misunderstanding, an erroneous but sincere opinion, or a fact. Driehaus’s theory would allow a candidate to make false statements about himself, his intentions and his virtues, but to threaten opponents with damages if they made excessive negative statements about him. This restriction on debate would be especially helpful to slippery candidates like Driehaus, who tried to be a liberal and a conservative at the same time.
The argument over federal funding of abortion is a senseless one: as long as abortion is the law of the land, it is bizarre to insist that federal funds that pay for other medical procedures can’t be used for this one. The law doesn’t allow taxpayers exclude their taxes from other policies they may have moral or ethical objections to, and shouldn’t. In addition, federal funds already fund abortions, though in a round-about way. They also directly fund abortions arising out of rape, incest and a threat to the life of the mother, as will the new health care law. Many abortion foes—the ones who really regard a fetus’s life as equal to any other human life, a completely defensible and consistent position—oppose abortion for any reason, and to them the health care reform law is indeed a “baby killer,” in the immortal words of Rep. Randy Neugebauer.
As this piece in Slate from earlier in the health care bill debate shows, the question of what constitutes “support for abortion” is anything but clear-cut. The Susan B. Anthony List may have interpreted the outrageously long and complicated law differently than Driehaus (who, like most of his colleagues, probably never read the bill ); they may object to federal money supporting any abortions; they may, as Slate notes, fear that an elimination of the Hyde amendment—which should be eliminated—will instantly convert the health care law into one that will permit federally-funded abortions; or they may just have been using the abortion issue to punish Driehaus for voting for the bill at all. Such a confusion of intentions, opinions and beliefs in a campaign setting makes a claim of defamation absurd, as I suspect Driehaus knows. What he’s trying to do is get revenge on political opponents who helped defeat him. This is unethical, and also undemocratic.
If Driehaus and his colleagues hadn’t cynically and irresponsibly allowed the health care bill to become so bloated and complex that it defied understanding and study by responsible voters, maybe the Susan B. Anthony claim wouldn’t have been so effective. Or maybe it would have been more effective. In either case, Driehaus proves that what critics of our elected officials have argued for some time is true: some members of Congress think they are entitled to power, and have lost all respect for the democratic process. If there was any doubt that he needed and deserved to lose his seat, this outrageous law suit should erase it.