Bishops Reject Abortion Push in Health-Care Reform Bill

Cardinal Justin Rigali of Philadelphia
Cardinal Justin Rigali of Philadelphia (photo: CNS)

We’re devoting a lot of space in the Register to coverage of health-care reform, for good reason.

If the reform bill passes with a mandate for taxpayer funding of abortion services, it will be a devastating blow to the lives of unborn Americans — and to the conscience rights of pro-life medical personnel and of all American taxpayers who oppose abortion.

Right now, the question of whether the health-care bill will include an abortion mandate hangs in the balance, as witnessed by events in the House of Representatives on Thursday. Some pro-life Democrats joined with Republicans serving on the House Energy and Commerce Committee to amend the bill to prohibit funding for abortion services except in cases where a woman’s life is in danger or her pregnancy resulted from rape or incest.

But that amendment was reversed later in the day, when the Democratic leadership successfully pressured a pair of Democrats on the committee to vote against the amendment during a second vote, sending it down to a 30-29 defeat.

The narrow margin in favor of the abortion mandate is an opportunity for Catholics and other pro-life Americans. They can lobby congressional Democrats en masse, warning them that they are risking the defeat of the entire health-care reform initiative if they insist on its inclusion in a bill that many Americans already have grave doubts about for other reasons.

Cardinal Justin Rigali of Philadelphia, chairman of the U.S. Catholic bishops’ Committee on Pro-Life Activities, commented directly on the issue in a July 29 letter to members of the Energy and Commerce Committee.

Speaking on behalf of the U.S. bishops, Cardinal Rigali wrote,

In this particular letter I am writing specifically about our fundamental requirement that health care legislation respect human life and rights of conscience. Much-needed reform must not become a vehicle for promoting an “abortion rights” agenda or reversing longstanding current policies against federal abortion mandates and funding. In this sense we urge you to make this legislation “abortion neutral” by preserving longstanding federal policies that prevent government promotion of abortion and respect conscience rights.

In this regard several features of H.R. 3200, as introduced on July 14, need to be addressed:

1. The legislation delegates to the Secretary of Health and Human Services the power to make abortion a basic or essential benefit in all health plans, or in the “public plan” created by the legislation. This would be a radical change: Federal law has long excluded most abortions from federal employees’ health benefits plans and places no requirement on private plans, most of which also decline to cover elective abortions.

2. Because some federal funds are authorized and appropriated by this legislation without passing through the Labor/HHS appropriations bill, they are not covered by the Hyde amendment and other provisions that have prevented direct federal funding of abortion for over three decades. The legislation needs its own provision against abortion funding to ensure consistency with the policy in all other federal health programs.

3. Provisions such as those requiring timely access to all benefits covered by qualified health plans could be used by courts to override and invalidate state laws regulating abortion, such as laws to ensure women’s safety and informed consent and to promote parental involvement when minors consider abortion. These laws are modest, widely supported, and constitutionally sound, but they could fall before a new federal mandate to maximize “access” to abortion. It should be made clear in the legislation that such laws will not be preempted.

4. Several federal laws have long protected the conscience rights of health care providers. These laws prevent governmental bodies from discriminating against individual and institutional health care providers that decline involvement in abortion, and respect the moral and religious convictions of health professionals on abortion and other procedures in programs funded under the Public Health Service Act and other federal laws (see President Obama recently stated that he accepts these current laws and will do nothing to weaken them. Congress should make the same pledge, by ensuring that this legislation will maintain protection for conscience rights.

As long-time supporters of genuine health care reform, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops is working to ensure that needed health reform is not undermined by abandoning longstanding and widely supported policies against abortion funding and mandates and in favor of conscience protection.

As it turned out, Cardinal Rigali’s intervention did not prove sufficient to persuade the Energy and Commerce Committee to dump the abortion mandate. But if the bishops are backed by their Catholic flocks as they continue to fight against the provision in the health-care reform bill, that could change as the bill continues to progress through Congress.