WASHINGTON — A coalition of church groups staged a mammoth conference call with President Obama in support of health-care reform Aug. 19. The call reportedly drew 140,000 participants.
But public support for health reform is waning, according to polls. Nor does the public believe Obama’s insistence that the reform bills before Congress would not pay for abortions with public funds.
Polling also shows that the often virulent hostility to health-care reform — expressed at town hall meetings — is strengthening public opinion against it.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Priests for Life and the Knights of Columbus are all calling on Catholics to let Congress know their opposition to the bills, as are conservative Christian groups such as Focus on the Family Action.
Chris Korzen, executive director of one of the groups supporting the health-care bills, Washington-based Catholics United for the Common Good, says the results of the conference call “blew us away.”
Groups such as his are urging supporters to attend town hall meetings with signs saying “Catholics for Health-Care Reform” or “People of Faith for Health-Care Reform” to send a message to both attentive members of Congress and the news media.
“We want to change the media narrative on these meetings. Right now they are being presented as a negative phenomenon because people who watch Fox TV show up and rant. So our hope is to bring a faith-based presence — a different kind of authority — to these meetings.”
Korzen says opponents of health-care reform per se are using misconceptions about the abortion issue to attract those who would otherwise support reform.
“There is a lot of confusion and misunderstanding” that the proposed public plan would be tax-supported. “It will be managed by the government,” he said, “but the funds will come from premiums just like they would in a private plan.”
Ultimately, the town hall meetings, the conference call and the e-mail campaigns are all designed to influence members of Congress, especially key senators and representatives known to be, in Korzen’s words, “moveable.” Lobbyists on both sides are concentrating their efforts in those states and electoral districts where the moveable politicians reside.
Obama spoke for about 10 minutes toward the end of the 40-minute conference call, which mainly comprised statements from Protestant and Catholic boosters, but included some questions from church members that were answered by Melody Barnes, Obama’s director of domestic affairs, who pointedly referred to her “own church” in Washington.
Likewise, the president couched his statement in religious terms, accusing his opponents of “bearing false witness” and identifying as one of the “fabrications” the claim that “this is all going to mean government funding of abortion.” This claim, he stated, was “not true.”
It’s a crucial question for Catholics, who by a narrow margin oppose legalization of abortion, according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, though the margin increases to 2:1 for practicing Catholics, according to a July poll by the Knights of Columbus.
It’s also a question hard for the general public to resolve, given the complexities of the bills before the Senate and House of Representatives, and also, says Douglas Johnson, legislative director for the National Right to Life Committee, because pro-abortion legislators have inserted misleading language that seems to exclude public funding for abortion.
But Johnson had some good news, as FactCheck.Org, the independent Web organization run by the Annenberg Public Policy Center, issued a report on the conference call, titled, revealingly, “Abortion, Which Side Is Fabricating?”
FactCheck.org’s conclusion supports the pro-life claims and contradicts Obama’s: “The House and Senate legislation would allow a new ‘public’ insurance plan to cover abortions, despite language added to the House bill that technically forbids using public funds to pay for them.” And given Obama’s past statements that “reproductive services” will be covered by any federal insurance plan, said FactCheck, “it’s likely that any new federal insurance plan would cover abortion unless Congress expressly prohibits that.”
Abortion is only one issue that is turning Americans against the president’s health-reform plan. A provision for “end of life” counseling in one bill has been used by former GOP vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin as evidence that Obama planned to set up “death panels” to decide on euthanizing some patients.
Town Hall Meetings
Concerns about the deficit, the loss of existing insurance coverage and government access to private bank accounts figure largely in the town hall meetings. A poll by NBC conducted Aug. 15-17 indicated that while most Americans deplore the conduct of some opponents of health care, they see the opponents as sincere and are inclined to believe their claims.
When asked if they believed the claim made at town hall meetings that abortion would be paid for with tax dollars, 50% of those polled answered Yes, and only 37% said No.
Moreover, the poll indicated, media coverage of town hall meetings is moving public opinion against health reform.
Steve Weatherbe writes
from Victoria, British Columbia.