Bishops Seek Expanded Definition of “Federal Funding” to Curtail Abortion

Last week’s House Republican hearing on the No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act, a reboot of Rep. Christopher Smith’s effort to attach a Stupak Amendment-like ban on private abortion coverage to the Affordable Care Act, shows just how undeniably the Catholic bishops have become the national face of anti-abortion efforts.

The real action on abortion restrictions is in the states, where previously little known groups like Americans United for Life promulgate model legislation designed to make abortion, while still technically legal, logistically almost impossible to access. As a result, former national anti-abortion powerhouses like the National Right to Life Committee, which spent decades on futile attempts to pass a federal human life amendment to overturn Roe v. Wade, have faded to the periphery.

In their place are the Catholic bishops, who use their religious authority to claim to represent broad-based ecumenical opposition to abortion. As Adele Stan noted in RH Reality Check, last Thursday’s hearing featured only two witnesses in favor of the measure: Richard Doerflinger, the chief lobbyist for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and Helen Alvaré, who used to be the bishops’ spokesperson. (And the woman who Archbishop Timothy Dolan, who just stepped down as head of the USCCB, called the best hire the bishops ever made because of her effectiveness as their anti-abortion point person.)

The bishops are focused on chipping away at abortion access by seeking increasingly elaborate definitions of what constitutes “federal” funding. This is fitting because the bishops helped formulate the original Hyde amendment in the 1970s that prohibited the use of federal funds for abortion in the first place.

Since then they have worked with allies like Smith to expand the universe of entities forbidden to have anything to do with abortion, from Medicaid, which receives direct federal funding, to entities like subsidized, private health plans under Obamacare in which federal dollars only share an accounting home with private dollars that may be used for abortion services. The NTFAA doesn’t have a short-term future in a Democratic Senate, but it advances the bishops’ narrative that private dollars can never be adequately segregated from abortion as it awaits a more favorable legislative environment. 

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