It is crunch time on the health care reform bill. The Senate leadership, in consultation with the White House, are deciding the final parameters of the legislation. Catholic observers are keeping their fingers crossed that the final legislative language will permit us to support it.
Actually, some Catholic observers are not crossing their fingers hoping for passage. Some Catholics have made it clear that they will oppose any bill coming from this administration regardless of how it treats abortion coverage, which is the central sticking point for most Catholics, certainly for the USCCB. Over at the website of Princeton Professor Robert George’s so-called "American Principles Project" their blog has a video of an ad aimed at pro-life Senator Ben Nelson from Nebraska, but the ad doesn’t address abortion, it addresses taxes. Set aside the fact that the Senate bill does not raise taxes as the ad charges. What the ad’s creators do not recognize is that if you Sen. Nelson is going to oppose the bill on any grounds, then Sen. Reid and the White House have no reason to listen to him when he raises pro-life concerns.
Indeed, some in the White House have concluded that the USCCB will end up not supporting the final bill no matter what they say or do. In addition to the abortion issue, there is funding for contraception and no funding for undocumented workers. I think the Church is right to raise a red flag on the subjects of contraception and immigration, but I do not think either concern warrants opposing a bill that achieves such an important social good. Still, they may have marginalized themselves at a critical juncture in the negotiations by appearing hostile to any but the most arch interpretations of the legislative language.
The hope for abortion-neutral health care reform rests today almost entirely in the hands of pro-life Democrats like Sen. Nelson and Sen. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania. As Sen. Reid tries to keep all Democrats on board to reach the magic number of 60 votes, these pro-life Democrats have enormous influence. Even on the House, where the rules favor the instincts of the Speaker, the pro-life leadership of Cong. Bart Stupak has insured that the issue will remain on the table after the Republicans have marginalized themselves.
Sen. Casey, you will recall, was deemed unfit by his bishop to speak at a Catholic commencement ceremony because he was not sufficiently pro-life: He had voted to confirm Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius. The bishop did not appreciate that such an appointment must be viewed from many angles, including the pro-life angle, and that whether Casey agreed with Sebelius on abortion or not, a president has a right to name his own team. But, if bishops, individually or collectively, expect Catholic politicians to ignore any such concerns except the abortion issue, they will make it impossible for pro-life Democrats to exist. And, in situations like the one we are in today, there will be no one to speak on behalf of life at the negotiating table. The only hope for changing our political culture so that we can even contemplate ending the abortion-on-demand legal regime we have today, is for there to be pro-life leaders in both political parties.
One of the problems with many in the leadership of the pro-life movement is that in their understandable, and even laudable, zeal, they sometimes overshoot, or otherwise miss the mark. They fail to grasp the complexity of human life, and consequently of human politics. They criticize Cardinal O’Malley for presiding at Sen. Kennedy’s funeral because they overlook the fact that Christians should never abandon a family in its time of grief. They criticize Sen. Casey’s vote for Secretary Sebelius because they overlook those considerations that counseled in favor of such a vote. In the current debate, they have been co-opted by partisan Republicans who, intent on opposing the bill no matter what, are completely on the sidelines in the final negotiations. The USCCB needs to decide whether or not it will allow itself to be similarly marginalized but if it is, it will be a great shame.