The Trojan FOCA

While the U.S. bishops’ conference and pro-life organizations are strenuously fighting the Freedom of Choice Act, there seems to be an effort to bring the proposed law about through other legislation.

WASHINGTON — Forget about fighting FOCA. It’s already becoming law.

So think several Catholic and pro-life activists and Washington observers.

While Catholics and pro-life citizens have voiced strong opposition to FOCA — the Freedom of Choice Act, which would override existing restrictions on access to abortion — many pro-life health-care advocates believe that the expanded State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) and other federally funded health-care programs already accomplish some of FOCA’s objectives.

“My sense is that the Freedom of Choice Act (FOCA) is not going to happen, as there has been such outcry against it,” said Mike O’Dea, executive director of the Christus Medicus Foundation.

John Brehany, director and ethicist at the Catholic Medical Association, agreed that pro-choice activists and policymakers “may not choose to assault the right to life head-on with the Freedom of Choice Act but rather will break it up” and attempt to pass parts of FOCA as part of the broader call for health-care reform.

“As the provisions of the stimulus bill are revealed, it is clear that the Obama administration is adding millions of people to federal health-care programs like Medicaid,” Brehany said. “More children will be deemed eligible for government-funded abortion and contraception under SCHIP and Medicaid, which the states can offer without parental knowledge or consent.”

On Jan. 29, the Senate approved a bill reauthorizing and expanding SCHIP. President Obama expressed his support for the legislation in a statement issued the following day, saying that, with the country facing an economic crisis, “it is vital that we redouble our efforts to ensure that every child in America has access to affordable health care.”

Under SCHIP, states are granted the authority to decide which health plans and services can be offered to minor children. According to O’Dea, most states do not require parental consent or notification for abortion for minors enrolled in their state health-care plans, and all 50 states fund contraceptives in their government health plans without parental involvement.

“It’s alarming that this has happened with virtually no public debate,” said Grace-Marie Turner of the Galen Institute. “Many people do not understand the implications of SCHIP as it is written.” President Obama signed the SCHIP bill Feb. 4.

The program’s expansion, said Turner, “means that there will be millions more children whose health care is under the jurisdiction of the state and an even greater government intrusion into families’ lives and moral decisions.”

Erosion of Family

Bishop William Murphy of Rockville Centre, N.Y., chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, wrote to members of the Senate in January to voice the bishops’ support for measures that would make SCHIP benefits more accessible to pregnant women and their unborn children, as well as children of legal immigrants.

In his letter, however, Bishop Murphy also advised senators that the health-care program should not “promote or fund abortion or ignore parental rights to secure needed health care for their children in ways that do not violate their moral or religious convictions.”

“Of course, the Church must advocate for better health care for children, but we do need to look closely at the programs being offered,” said Bishop Robert Vasa of the Diocese of Baker, Ore. “If minor children have access to abortion and contraception without parental knowledge, that is contributing to the erosion of the family, and it is a serious anti-life issue Catholics must be aware of. There needs to be a health-care plan offered that is both good for families and respectful of citizens’ rights and religious beliefs.”

U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., who sponsored the SCHIP reauthorization bill in the House of Representatives, called the legislation “a down payment on the promise” President Obama made during his campaign to reform health care and make it accessible to all Americans. “In the coming weeks, I expect to begin holding hearings on the need to overhaul our nation’s health-care system,” said Pallone, who is chairman of the health subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. The subcommittee has sole jurisdiction over Medicaid, the Food and Drug Administration, the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control. It oversees public health, biomedical programs, food and drug safety, mental health and research, hospital construction, and all health care and homeland security-related concerns.

Health-care advocacy organizations such as Christus Medicus and the Catholic Medical Association urge Catholics to scrutinize all proposed changes to government health-care programs at the state and federal level, particularly as the Obama administration plans to address the issue of national health-care reform.

“The new administration says it won’t take away existing health plans handled by private companies, but what it’s not explaining is that people won’t necessarily have the freedom to pick a health-care plan for their families that is consistent with their beliefs,” said O’Dea. “We must encourage our state and federal governments to offer health-care legislation and programs that protect our religious liberty and respect the dignity of the human person.”

O’Dea believes that Catholic Americans must pay close attention to this issue and make their opinions known to the president and policymakers in Congress. “With the huge coming effort to federalize health care, we could see efforts to fund abortion at greater increments, with fewer restrictions, through a universal health-care system,” he said. “That could strike down the option of parental notification and consent in all 50 states — without any action on FOCA at all.”

Nicole Callahan writes from

Durham, North Carolina.