WASHINGTON — Americans are mobilizing in a battle royal over health-reform measures sitting in Congress during the summer recess. Catholics appear equally polarized.

Members of Congress have found no respite back home: Their town hall meetings with citizens have been marked by inflammatory tactics from both sides of the debate. Come September, Congress is scheduled to vote on health-reform measures that pro-life groups warn will provide carte blanche public funding for abortions.

“This is the biggest pro-life issue in years,” said Congressman Joe Pitts, R-Pa., co-sponsor with Congressman Bart Stupak, D-Mich., of a key pro-life amendment to the health-reform bill (H.R. 3200) that was defeated in committee.

But pro-choice groups are issuing warnings, too: They say the Pitts-Stupak amendments would have seriously reduced existing health insurance coverage for abortion. They are urging their supporters to back H.R. 3200 as amended by California pro-abortion Democrat Lois Capps. Some Catholic groups agree.

Two of the Pitts-Stupak amendments made it into H.R. 3200: The first removed the bill’s “pre-emption” provision that would nullify state laws — about 200 of them — that restrict abortions, for example, by requiring parental notification or consent. A second, so-called “conscience” provision protects medical personnel and institutions such as Catholic hospitals and insurance companies that refuse to perform or pay for abortions.

But a third vital amendment was defeated that would have taken away the power pro-life critics insist the bill gives the Health and Human Services secretary to require abortion coverage in government or private insurance plans.

Pitts said the health-reform bill is a work of deliberate deceit intended to “get abortion in through stealth.”

New Hyde Amendment Needed

The only way to prevent a repetition of the Medicaid abortions, said Pitts, is to add to the bill a version of the Hyde Amendment, which Congress has been appending to the annual appropriation for health spending each year since 1976. The Hyde Amendment specifically prohibits public funding for those on Medicaid for so-called “elective abortions,” while permitting it for abortions of unborn children conceived after rape or incest and for women whose lives are threatened by pregnancy.

“We know from hindsight there’s got to be statutory language,” said Pitts.

But Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, claimed in a July 31 statement that Stupak and Pitts “are obsessed with attacking women’s rights.” NARAL and Planned Parenthood defend the form in which H.R. 3200 was finally approved in committee, with its amendments from Capps intact, as a bill that would merely protect existing abortion rights, not expand them.

In agreement with that view are such liberal Catholic groups as Catholics United for the Common Good and Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good. Catholics United’s executive director, Chris Korzen, said the Capps amendment “essentially duplicates the language of the Hyde Amendment. No federal funds can be used to pay for abortions” — except where the Hyde Amendment allows them.

Bishops Condemn H.R. 3200

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a letter on Aug. 11 explaining that the bill “delegates to the secretary of Health and Human Services the power to make unlimited abortion a mandated benefit in the public health insurance plan. … This would be a radical change.”

The bill indeed prohibits public spending on abortion, say the bishops and the bill’s other critics, but allows funds from premiums paid by insurees to go for abortions.

The premium money goes into the same pool as government subsidies, explained Douglas Johnson of the National Right to Life Committee, “and checks for abortionists will come out of that pool.”

“What is the difference between taxpayers’ dollars going into the pool to pay for abortions and compulsory premiums this bill requires going into the pool?” he asked.

Neutrals in the debate are divided on the interpretation. An Aug. 5 Associated Press story on H.R. 3200 with the Capps amendments was headlined “Gov’t Insurance would allow coverage for abortion” and called it “a decision that would affect millions of women and recast federal policy on the divisive issue.”

But FactCheck.org, a nonpartisan Web organization that researches political claims, said that under the bill, “No public money could be used to pay for abortions.”

Less neutrally, perhaps, the Southern Baptist Convention said H.R. 3200 “does not maintain the current policy preventing federal funds for most abortions but actually explicitly includes abortion coverage.”

When the battle moves to the floor of Congress in September, the focus will be on efforts by the bipartisan pro-life caucus to bring back their amendments on the floor of the House of Representatives.

Before that can even happen, there will likely be a fight over whether amendments will even be allowed from the floor. Astutely, Cardinal Rigali asked representatives to “oppose any rule for consideration of H.R. 3200 that would block such amendments.”

Pitts advises pro-lifers to make their views known, by postcard or, better yet, by face-to-face meetings with their congressional representatives.

The National Right to Life Committee’s Johnson said Stupak will have to rally enough Democrats to overcome that party’s 40-vote Democratic majority in the House.

“What we’ve got going for us,” said Johnson, “is that most Americans don’t want public funding of abortion.”

Steve Weatherbe writes from

Victoria, British Columbia.