Catholic Bishops Now Push Health Care Bill They Held Up

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is now pushing the House and Senate to get health care reform passed — but the bishops define “reform” in a very particular way. In a letter to all members of Congress, the bishops declare the “health care debate, with all its political and ideological conflict, seems to have lost its central moral focus and policy priority, which is to ensure that affordable, quality, life-giving care is available to all.”

Note the words “life-giving,” which are loaded with meaning for the bishops’ stance on abortion and “conscience protections” for health care providers, insurers, employers, and the insured. In other words, as the bishops state in their letter, a reform bill without these “protections” is “not true health care reform.” It’s their clever way of trying to duck blame for stalling the bill — we support “true” reform, honest!

Now the bishops’ motive is quite clear: they are using health care reform to normalize and expand their agenda on reproductive care and end-of-life issues. They think they have enough clout, as they did with the House bill back in November, to hold up reform until it restricts peoples’ personal health care choices to which they object from the seclusion of the church. If a bill doesn’t pass, the bishops will relinquish responsibility for its downfall, claiming it wasn’t genuine reform and therefore unsupportable.

After its divide and conquer strategy that pushed the House Democrats to adopt its version of “true health care reform,” the USCCB now decries the division and partisanship that stalled final passage of a bill. “Now is not the time to abandon this task,” the bishops write, “but rather to set aside partisan divisions and special interest pressures to find ways to enact genuine reform.” If only they had thought of that three months ago.

Earlier this month, the bishops sent a bulletin insert to the 19,000 Catholic parishes across the country, urging parishioners to call on their members of Congress to oppose any final bill that didn’t include the USCCB-approved Stupak restrictions. (But remember, set aside all those special interest pressures.) The bishops claim to support reform, but imply it was supporters of reproductive choice who stood in the way of passage because they didn’t support “genuine” reform.

Now that Scott Brown’s election threatens to kill reform, the bishops are attempting to portray themselves as the heroes who can save it. They’ve absolved themselves of responsibility for holding the House bill hostage, and for continuing to oppose the Senate bill because its abortion provisions aren’t restrictive enough, even though it’s just as restrictive as the House version.

But now Stupak, their closest ally in the House, seems to have been drinking too much of the Tea Party brew. After Scott Brown’s election, Stupak took to Fox News to lambaste his colleagues for “overreaching” on health care. He paid lip service to wanting reform passed, but his real rhetorical bones were tossed to the opposition. Will he go to the mat to save health care and bring his (claimed) 10 or 12 House allies to vote for a bill, or will he pander to anti-abortion activists (who are throwing their lukewarm support to Brown because of his opposition health care reform) who don’t really care about keeping abortion funding out of health care but rather killing it altogether?

The bishops are Stupak’s cover. While he plays up to the anti-reform right, he uses the bishops’ imprimatur to pretend to the Democrats that he’s a “pro-lifer,” an advocate of the “seamless garment” that “protects” from conception to death. But if he continues to ally himself with the opposition (while whining that the Democrats are excluding him), will the Democrats call him — or the bishops — out on blocking the bill? The bishops don’t own the definition of “genuine reform” or “life-giving care,” and disagreeing with them doesn’t make one hostile to religion.

Sarah Posner, author of God’s Profits: Faith, Fraud, and the Republican Crusade for Values Voters, covers politics and religion. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Guardian, The Atlantic, The American ProspectThe NationSalon, and other publications. Follow her on TwitterRSS feed Email