Are US Bishops Responsible for Anti-Abortion Amendment in Health Care Reform?

The question so many are asking today is: How did we end up with a House bill on health insurance reform that dramatically undercuts abortion rights?

After all, we have a pro-choice president who supports public funding of abortion, a Democratic majority in the House and Senate, a Democratic party platform that supports choice and public funding, support for overturning the Hyde Amendment in the major Jewish and Christian denominations, and national polls that tell us that most Americans—including Catholics—believe that health insurance should cover abortion service.

Fingers are immediately pointed at the Catholic bishops, and there is no doubt that the lobby that exerted the most effort and probably money to defeat the inclusion of insurance for abortion services in the reform was the US Conference of Catholic Bishops. Their lobbyists have been on the Hill every day urging support for the Stupak Amendment and in the final hours they pulled out all the stops sending a bulletin to 19,000 parish churches across the US calling on those at Sunday mass to lobby in favor of excluding coverage for abortion services.

Every news article describes meetings between the bishops’ lobbyists and Nancy Pelosi and Henry Waxman. Yet, national polls tell us that only about 15% of Catholics agree with the bishops that abortion should be illegal, and Catholics, according to a CFC poll, are split on funding, 50% for and 50% against broad coverage for abortion based on the woman’s decision. Fifty/Fifty on funding is not a promising electoral margin and folks: political decisions are not made on the basis of national polls.

Elections are increasingly won on the basis of very small margins of victory and too many Democrats now run in highly polarized districts where a shift in 2% of the vote is the difference between a seat in Congress and defeat. When candidates and incumbents believe (as they do in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Colorado and the South) that the local bishop and parish priests can convince 2% of those Catholics in the pew to vote against them because they are pro-choice, the die is cast.

And when the Democratic party decided in 2004 to court anti-abortion, but otherwise progressive, candidates like Bob Casey in Pennsylvania, they set the stage for a Democratic majority that would be held hostage by a minority of anti-abortion Catholics, like Stupak and Blue Dog Democrat Travis Childers, who, if united, could determine the outcome of any vote and extract anti-abortion provisions to their heart’s content. The message the Party sent was that it is just as moral to be pro-choice as anti-abortion and we not only had to tolerate each other, we had to welcome those who were opposed to abortion with more than open arms. And the Party did. Howard Dean and Chuck Schumer then head of the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee set about recruiting anti-choice Democrats like Bob Casey to run in tough districts. They got what they wanted—a majority.

But the adage be careful what you wish for applies. Emboldened after being marginal for so long, the new guys and the old guys teamed up with 19 of them—all representatives affiliated with Democrats for Life—wrote Pelosi in June to tell her that if abortion funding was included in health care reform they would vote against it. Eleven of the 19 are Roman Catholics; eight have been elected since 2004.

The President added his two cents pontificating in papal tones, strangely prideful, assuring us that “no federal dollars will be used for abortion.” He made it sound like this was a good thing instead of the moral deficit that it is.

It was a knock out, a one-two punch. The bishops hit women hard, right in the belly and the coup de grace was the slap in the face from the anti-choice Democrats. Violence against women should come as no surprise.

And so, early Sunday morning, women were treated to the spectacle of the Democratic pro-choice president and the Democratic congressional leaders all smiles at the historic passage of a House bill authorizing modest but important reforms in health insurance. No one had the decency to note that it was accomplished—as much social progress has been for centuries—by limiting women’s reproductive freedom. Now there’s a moral crusade gone awry.

fkissling@gmail.com'

Frances Kissling is a visiting scholar at the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania and former president of Catholics for a Free Choice.