Catholics Coming Around On Senate Health Care Bill

As the drama builds over whether House Speaker Nancy Pelosi will whip enough votes for the Senate version of the health care bill, anti-abortion activists continue to buoy Rep. Bart Stupak to hold out for nothing less than the language he secured in the version passed by the House last year.

But despite Stupak’s intransigence, pro-life Catholic organizations and members of Congress are beginning to see that the Senate bill does not, as the anti-choice holdouts baselessly claim, fund abortions. His claim to have a dozen or so members on his side is rapidly fading.

The Catholic Health Association, which represents Catholic health care providers, has broken with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and has endorsed the Senate bill. Sister Carol Keehan writes in Catholic Health World:

We said there could not be any federal funding for abortions and there had to be strong funding for maternity care, especially for vulnerable women. The bill now being considered allows people buying insurance through an exchange to use federal dollars in the form of tax credits and their own dollars to buy a policy that covers their health care. If they choose a policy with abortion coverage, then they must write a separate personal check for the cost of that coverage.

There is a requirement that the insurance companies be audited annually to assure that the payment for abortion coverage fully covers the administrative and clinical costs, that the payment is held in a separate account from other premiums, and that there are no federal dollars used.

The USCCB continues to oppose the bill, saying it “fails our moral criteria and must be changed; if changes do occur the bishops would study the new bill, then develop a position based on our moral criteria.”

But some Catholic Democrats in Congress who had voted for the Stupak amendment, are now coming around on the Senate bill, and have said they likely will vote for it, including Tom Perriello (VA) and Mike Doyle (PA). This morning, Stupak’s Michigan colleague Dale Kildee issued a statement:

For those who know me, I have always respected and cherished the sanctity of human life. I spent 6 years studying to be a priest and was willing to devote my life to God. I came to Congress two years after the Hyde Amendment became law and I have spent the last 34 years casting votes to protect the lives of the unborn. I have stood up to many in my party to defend the right to life and have made no apologies for doing so. I now find myself disagreeing with some of the people and groups I have spent a lifetime working with. I have listened carefully to both sides, sought counsel from my priest, advice from family, friends and constituents and I have read the Senate abortion language more than a dozen times.

I am convinced that the Senate language maintains the Hyde Amendment, which states that no federal money can be used for abortion. The Senate bill includes a “conscience clause” and allows states to ban plans that include abortion. I also disagree with the argument that the Senate bill would lead to abortions being performed at community health centers. Under existing law (42 C.P.R. § 50.301), community health centers are prohibited from performing abortions. We must not lose sight of what is at stake here-the lives of 31 million American children, adults, and seniors-who lives of 31 million Americans. Voting for this bill in no way diminishes my pro-life voting record or undermines my beliefs. I am a staunch pro-life member of Congress-both unborn.

Catholics United, which is supporting passage of the Senate bill, even though it, too, believes it exceeds Hyde, is now, along with the CHA, under fire from Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver for “undermining the witness of the Catholic community; and ensuring the failure of genuine, ethical health-care reform.”

Of course the key thing to watch — regardless of whether reform passes — is how all this rhetoric about the Hyde amendment affects future legislative maneuvers relating to abortion. Pro-choice members and activists have been miffed for months that Democrats, including President Obama, initially framed the abortion provisions in health care reform as “maintaining the status quo” (i.e., Hyde), because the Hyde Amendment is unjust in the first place. If the Senate bill — which exceeds Hyde in restrictiveness — becomes law, it will be the new “status quo.” And that will make it harder to legislatively dial back abortion restriction, especially if the effort to bring anti-choice Democrats along on health care is portrayed as Herculean. Will abortion restrictions become the new common ground?

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