WASHINGTON — Leading Catholic and pro-life organizations are challenging the accuracy of several other Catholic groups that endorsed a sweeping health care overhaul legislation and maintained it will not fund elective abortions.

Pro-life leaders are certain that the federal legislation — which could face a final vote as soon as Sunday — will fund the largest expansion of abortion in decades.

Leading up to what is expected to be a final vote on the health-care bill in the House of Representatives, several Catholic groups this week announced support for the measure and largely dismissed concerns that the legislation would provide federal funding for elective abortions.

Catholic organizations supporting the legislation included the Catholic Health Association (CHA), a group of Catholic professors and Network — an umbrella advocacy group of women’s religious orders concerned with social justice issues.

Today, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (USCCB) released a statement responding to Network’s letter to Congress.

Network, said the bishops, “grossly overstated whom they represent…. Network’s letter, about health care reform, was signed by a few dozen people, and despite what Network said, they do not come anywhere near representing 59,000 American sisters.”

The bishops noted that the Network letter had 55 signatories and that some were individuals while some were groups of three to five persons.

“There are 793 religious communities in the United States,” said the bishops. “The math is clear. Network is far off the mark.”

Another statement that appeared today came from the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious, which represents 103 communities.

“Recent statements from groups like Network, the Catholic Health Association and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) directly oppose the Catholic Church’s position on critical issues of health care reform,” said the statement, signed by Religious Sister of Mercy Mother Mary Quentin Sheridan, president of the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious. She said the Council “believes the bishops’ position is the authentic teaching of the Catholic Church.”

“Protection of life and freedom of conscience are central to morally responsible judgment,” the statement concluded. “We join the bishops in seeking ethically sound legislation.”

“Experts disagree on exactly what some of this means,” said Stephanie Niedringhaus, a spokeswoman for Network, about the abortion language in the health-care bill. “We do believe that access to health care saves thousands of lives and that’s very much the Church’s mission.”

Network, which represent 59,000 Catholic sisters, lobbies Congress for social justice program funding but has not previously lobbied regarding abortion, Niedringhaus said.

But Catholic pro-life leaders are united in their view that the legislation would provide taxpayer funding for elective abortions.

“We’re happy to have anybody from any organization say where our analysis [of the legislation] is flawed but we’re pretty confident it is right, unfortunately,” said Richard Doerflinger, associate director of the bishops conference’s Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities. “There are some people that haven’t looked into this as closely as we have.”

The strong convictions of the bishops conference that the health-care overhaul would fund elective abortions and limit the conscience protections of Catholic health care professionals were echoed by other long-time pro-life advocates, including the National Right to Life Committee and Americans United for Life.

Catholic pro-life advocates worried that the support of Catholic groups that are traditionally uninvolved in advocacy for pro-life laws and policies, would be portrayed by the secular media as a split in the Church over abortion and provide political cover for Catholic members of Congress to support the bill.

“It’s a travesty and a scandal to our fellow citizens in the Catholic Church that organizations claiming to be Catholic would be publicly criticizing and frustrating the efforts on the part of the [bishops conference] to resolve the problems of this bill,” said Brian Burch, president of CatholicVoteAction.org, a Catholic lay advocacy group with more than 500,000 members.

Catholic Health Association

The leader of pro-life Democrats, Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., said the recent advocacy for passage of the health-care bill by Catholic groups who are not generally involved in pro-life causes did not affect his views on the legislation.

“Neither one of these groups that came out in favor of the Senate language [on abortion] are groups that we look to on life issues,” Stupak said. “They are groups that have ‘Catholic’ in their name but that’s about it as far as life issues go” for them.

Stupak and others downplayed the importance of the CHA’s dramatic timing shortly before an expected vote by pointing out that the hospital group is a long-time supporter of the Senate-passed health care bill.

More significant, said pro-life critics of CHA, is that the trade group consists of many for-profit entities that retain few of the Catholic features from their foundings. Instead, a leading priority for CHA hospitals is to maximize their profits. The CHA member hospitals were included in a 2009 agreement with the Obama administration to accept $155 billion less in Medicare reimbursements over 10 years as part of the health-care overhaul effort in exchange for an exemption for hospitals from the cost-cutting authority of a planned Medicare Commission, according to the Sunlight Foundation, a government watchdog group.

Hospitals also expect a sharp reduction in the amount of charity care they must provide because most Americans will be required to carry insurance.

Sister Carol Keehan, chief executive of CHA, was unavailable for comment, according to a spokesman.

The CHA is led by a 22-member board of trustees comprised of the leaders of various member hospitals and only two bishops.

“For the most part, Catholic hospitals are not run by dioceses any more. They are run by separate boards or religious orders,” Doerflinger said. “The bishop in each diocese does have the authority to interpret and apply the ethical directives for Catholic hospitals in order for a hospital to be considered Catholic.”

The lobbying effort by Catholic groups that have been previously uninvolved with pro-life issues may have had an impact with at least one Catholic Democrat, Rep. Dale Kildee, D-Mich., who switched his vote after previously supporting Stupak’s pro-life language, which was excluded from the final health-care bill.

Kildee’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

Lobbying Local Offices

Stupak acknowledged that it is possible that he has lost some of the members of his pro-life group of House Democrats who voted in favor of the health legislation that contained his abortion restrictions in November and now promise to vote for a final version of the health-care overhaul that lacks robust abortion-funding restrictions.

However, Stupak said he has added some new House members and still has a bloc of at least 12 Democrats who will switch against the bill without an abortion funding ban.

Catholic pro-life advocacy groups continue to urge members of Congress to oppose the legislation based, in part, on the abortion-funding provisions expected in the final bill.

Father Frank Pavone, national director of Priests for Life, has encouraged up to 8,000 parish priests to lead delegations from their parishes to visit the local offices of their members of Congress to express their opposition to the abortion- and conscience-related provisions of the legislation.

Father Pavone said the positions of Catholic groups that announced support for the health-care bill despite continued abortion funding concerns likely stems from their underestimating the mission of pro-abortion groups to increase abortions through any means necessary.

“It springs from a different level of awareness and appreciation for what the abortion industry is all about and what the abortion industry’s allies, who are currently holding so much power in Washington, are willing to do to advance the abortion agenda,” Father Pavone said. “We’ve got some people in power and in the abortion industry who have never seen an abortion that they don’t like and that they don’t want to fund.”

Rich Daly writes from Washington D.C.