WASHINGTON — As health-care reform advocates make their final push to pass President Obama’s signature legislation, Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput issued an urgent statement backing and restating the U.S. bishops’ opposition to the Senate bill’s language on abortion funding and implicitly challenged the Catholic Health Association’s apparent endorsement of the proposed legislation issued this past weekend.
The Senate bill failed to “meet minimum moral standards in at least three important areas: the exclusion of abortion funding and services; adequate conscience protections for health-care professionals and institutions; and the inclusion of immigrants,” the archbishop asserted in a column published March 14 in the Denver Catholic Register.
Given the U.S. bishops’ conference’s urgent concerns regarding funding provisions for abortion and weak conscience protections in the Senate bill, Archbishop Chaput expressed frustration that some “Catholic” groups backed the proposed legislation as the best chance for insuring an estimated 30 million Americans.
“Groups, trade associations and publications describing themselves as ‘Catholic’ or ‘pro-life’ that endorse the Senate version — whatever their intentions — are doing a serious disservice to the nation and to the Church, undermining the witness of the Catholic community; and ensuring the failure of genuine, ethical health-care reform,” he stated.
The archbishop underscored widespread pro-life fears that a breakdown of official Catholic opposition to the Senate bill could “provide the illusion of moral cover for an unethical piece of legislation,” and would be used by abortion-rights supporters to shore up their position in the final stage of an exhaustive and contentious national debate.
Though Archbishop Chaput did not single out any Catholic group for breaking ranks, pro-life lobbyists suggest he was taking aim at the Catholic Health Association (CHA), which issued what has been characterized as an endorsement of the Senate bill over the weekend.
This weekend, Sister Carol Keehan, the Catholic Health Association president and chief executive, described the Senate bill as “a historic opportunity to make great improvements in the lives of so many Americans. Is it perfect? No.”
While praising the bill’s efforts to make health-care insurance more accessible, Sister Carol acknowledged that “CHA has a major concern on life issues. We said there could not be any federal funding for abortions and there had to be strong funding for maternity care, especially for vulnerable women.”
However, Sister Carol’s statement implied that the Senate bill had reasonably accommodated pro-life concerns: “The bill now being considered allows people buying insurance through an exchange to use federal dollars in the form of tax credits and their own dollars to buy a policy that covers their health care. If they choose a policy with abortion coverage, then they must write a separate personal check for the cost of that coverage.
“There is a requirement that the insurance companies be audited annually to assure that the payment for abortion coverage fully covers the administrative and clinical costs, that the payment is held in a separate account from other premiums, and that there are no federal dollars used.”
It was not the first time the CHA had issued a qualified endorsement of the Senate bill. In December, a New York Times story, “Catholic Group Supports Senate on Abortion Aid,” characterized the CHA stance as an “apparent split with Roman Catholic bishops over the abortion-financing provisions of the proposed health-care overhaul,” and suggested that the “nation’s Catholic hospitals have signaled that they back the Senate’s compromise on the issue, raising hopes of breaking an impasse in Congress.”
In the past, the CHA has contested any such characterization of its position on the Senate bill, but March 14, a Time magazine blog, Swampland, described Sister Carol’s recent statement as an outright “endorsement” of the Senate bill.
“The Democratic leadership in the White House and the House is describing the CHA statement as an endorsement of the current Senate health-care bill,” reported Tom McClusky, vice president of Family Research Council Action.
McClusky contended that the Democratic Party leadership would grab every opportunity to peel back House votes opposing the Senate bill: “In my 20 years on Capitol Hill, I’ve never seen a vote that is more of a nail-biter. It’s all resting on the Democrats — Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi can only afford to lose 37 House members.”
Last week, the House majority leader, Steny Hoyer, D-Md., and Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., met with Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., in an ultimately futile effort to gain his support. House Democrats leaders then confirmed that negotiations had reached a permanent impasse.
Sister Carol issued her statement the day after news media confirmed the Democratic leadership’s failure to bring Stupak on board. Further, the CHA statement appeared to challenge the substance of a bishops’ conference bulletin insert on health-care reform distributed March 14.
The insert warned that the Senate bill “requires federal funds to help subsidize and promote health plans that cover elective abortions” and that “all purchasers of such plans will be required to pay for other people’s abortions through a separate payment solely to pay for abortion.”
Analysts envision three possible outcomes to this final week of negotiations: The House does not approve the Senate bill and “Obamacare” is derailed, the House approves the Senate bill and the legislation is signed by the president, or the House and Senate enter into reconciliation, which allows some amendments on budgetary issues to be incorporated into the final language of an approved bill.
Since the passage of the Senate bill, the Democratic leadership has sought to downplay its departure from the Hyde Amendment’s outright ban on federal funding of abortion.
In recent weeks, the White House and Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius have insisted that the Senate language supports the status quo on federal funding of abortion.
Meanwhile, abortion-rights supporters have described the Stupak amendment as an “extreme” departure from legislative precedent.
However, as Stupak maintained his resistance, news reports confirmed the substance of pro-life concerns: The Senate bill’s ban on abortion funding did not cover a new revenue stream that would be used to fund abortions.
The U.S. bishops, long-time advocates of healthcare reform, had been prepared to support the bill, as long as it included an explicit ban on federal funding of abortions and provided robust conscience protections. And in the early phase of the legislative process, the president pledged to respect the USCCB’s priorities.
At a July 2, 2009, round table meeting with Catholic journalists at the White House, Obama discussed abortion and conscience clauses. He said that hundreds of thousands of comments for the conscience-clause review had been received.
“We will be coming out with, I think, more specific guidelines,” he said. “But I can assure all of your readers that when this review is complete there will be a robust conscience clause in place. It may not meet the criteria of every possible critic of our approach, but it certainly will not be weaker than what existed before the [Bush administration’s] changes were made.”
Obama said worries that the conscience protections would disappear are an example that “there have been some who keep on anticipating the worst from us, and it’s not based on anything I’ve said or done, but is rather just a perception somehow that we have some hard-line agenda that we’re seeking to push.”
And in a speech to a joint session of Congress in September 2009, Obama pledged that “under our plan, no federal dollars will be used to fund abortions, and federal conscience clauses will remain in place.”
Pro-life House Democrats have repeatedly echoed the USCCB’s concerns, and their continued opposition may seal the failure of Obamacare. Yesterday, Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., the House Democratic whip, told NBC’s “Meet the Press” that the party still didn’t have the necessary votes for passage of the bill in the House.
But Clyburn vowed, “We’ll be working it going into the week. I am also very confident that we’ll get this done.”
Doug Johnson of the National Right to Life Committee hopes that Clyburn won’t be able to round up the necessary voters over the week, but Johnson noted that Clyburn cited the CHA endorsement during one weekend media interview as evidence of the Senate bill’s abortion-neutral language.
“The CHA statement is unhelpful, and maybe even harmful: There is potential for confusion and for certain lawmakers to use this as a cover,” said Johnson. “However, I think most members of Congress will view it as a shallow political document.”
Joan Frawley Desmond writes from Chevy Chase, Maryland.