Is the USCCB Right?
As the Congress gets ready for final votes on the health care reform bills, the USCCB maintains that they cannot support the final bill because it permits federal funding of abortion. But, a series of analyses have raised questions about the factual accuracy of the assertions made by the USCCB.
The most frightening claim is that the bill would directly fund community health clinics that perform abortions. This would indeed be troubling, but it is apparently not true. The USCCB objection focuses on whether the funds for the clinics would be covered by the Hyde Amendment, but that is not the real issue. In his article at PoliticsDaily, David Gibson demolishes the objection by pointing out that the community health clinics in question do not, never have, and have no intention of performing abortions.
The claim that the health care bill will permit federal funding of abortion is also troubling. Originally, pro-choice groups favored the Capps Amendment which really was an accounting trick. A federally subsidized plan could cover abortion, but the insurance company would have to pull the money from the premium payment, not the subsidy. How this would be done it did not explain. But, the Senate-approved measure never permits the funds to be combined and insists instead that every person who purchases a plan that covers abortion in the exchanges must write a separate check for their abortion coverage. This is functionally and morally indistinguishable from the "riders" covering abortion that the Stupak Amendment specifically contemplated. For details about this point of controversy, you can consult a document put out by the group Faith in Public Life.
Faith in Public Life also has an analysis of the different bills from Professor Timothy Jost of Washington and Lee University, which you can read here. The USCCB has issued a point by point rebuttal of Jost’s commentary, which you can read here.
The separate check for abortion coverage has itself become a source of controversy, and again all sides seem to be talking past each other. The USCCB argues that people will be forced to pay for other people’s abortion. But, that is only the case if someone chooses a plan that covers abortion. Now, it is anybody’s guess how the market forces will play out. Abortions are cheaper than pregnancies, so the insurance companies have an interest in offering coverage for the procedure, but in fact most women who procure abortions pay out of pocket in order to maintain their privacy. On the other hand, because the insurance company will have to collect separate checks for the abortion coverage, keep that money in a separate account, and pay for any abortions only out of this separate fund, they will have to maintain a staff to oversee all this, and as any businessman can tell you, this kind of oversight can get pretty expensive. It is also impossible to predict how long it will take for people to get fed up with having to write a separate check for abortion coverage and ask their insurers if they can get the same insurance without the abortion coverage. As I say, it is unclear how this will all work out, but I do not believe anyone’s guess about the future performance of market forces is the kind of ground upon which successors of the apostles should base their stance.
The latest statements from the USCCB also fail to note the specific pro-life provisions of the current bill. In the Senate negotiations, Sen. Bob Casey succeeded in having provisions from the Pregnant Women Support Act inserted into the bill. The current health care legislation includes $250 million dollars to support pregnant women and both increases the adoption tax credit and makes it refundable so poorer families can participate. A group of pro-life leaders have called specific attention to these provisions in a letter to Congress that was drawn up by Catholic in Alliance for the Common Good. If the USCCB at least acknowledged these parts of the current bill that are pro-life, but still concluded it was insufficient, their stance would have more credibility. Their failure to acknowledge these provisions is difficult to explain.
It is troubling that the USCCB seems to be working hand-in-glove with the National Right to Life Committee, which has become, for all intents and purposes, an adjunct to the Republican Party. These talking points against the health care bill are being repeated by groups like the American Life League. It should be remembered that the judgment of such groups has been more than questionable in the past: Judie Brown, the head of the American Life League, condemned Cardinal Sean O’Malley for presiding at the funeral of Senator Ted Kennedy, saying the funeral constituted "spitting on Christ." I am not sure I would trust her judgment on the content of the current legislation. And, as I have pointed out before, Professor Robert George’s political organization, the American Principles Project, made its intentions clear when they ran an item under the headline: "Abortion funding still last best hope for halting health care legislation passage." These groups all want to defeat health care reform no matter what.
The USCCB point man on the pro-life issues is Mr. Richard Doerflinger. Mr. Doerflinger is undoubtedly sincere and undoubtedly smart. But, he tends to view all policy issues through a single lens, the lens of abortion policy and a certain way of approaching that policy. It is like going to a 3-D movie and only wearing the red lens over your right eye: The picture gets distorted. Of course, his job is to monitor pro-life issues, not health care issues, but the bishops have an entirely different mandate and that is to articulate a moral vision for the Church and the nation. They must wear the full 3-D glasses, not half.
Mr. Doerflinger has trouble acknowledging in the current case that there is more than one way to skin the cat, that the Senate bill is not ‘pro-abortion’ in any real sense but is, in fact, a different approach to the issue. He may prefer one approach over another, but he has an obligation to acknowledge that the differences between the Senate and House bills are pretty thin. He has a further obligation to explain why these small differences warrant the risk that is now obvious, the risk that the U.S. bishops will be tagged for causing the failure of universal health insurance. Instead, he continues to grant interviews in which he repeats the mantra that his way is the only way.
The bishops should be wary of following his way. Many commentators think he is mistaken in many of his assessments and prognostications, but even if he is not, the bishops should only risk defeating health care over a genuine moral principle, not because of anyone's guess about how market forces will react, or what insurance companies will do. Neither the House/Stupak bill nor the Senate bill provides government funding of abortion. That is a statement of fact, not a statement of opinion and Mr. Doerflinger is entitled to his own opinions but not to his own facts.
I am not persuaded by the argument one hears frequently on the left, that health care is simply too important to let it be side tracked because of abortion. If the current bill actually was pro-abortion I would oppose it. I find the idea of being pro-abortion and pro-health care oxymoronic. But, it seems to me that the language in the final bill does clear the necessary hurdle of not providing federal funds for abortion. Then, and only then, do I feel comfortable moving on to the other merits of the bill. I certainly would have drafted a different bill, but on the merits, I would vote in favor of its passage. I hope the bishops will recognize that pro-life Catholics can, in good conscience, disagree about the different aspects of the bill. Even if they feel compelled to oppose it, there are sufficient reasons on all sides to not draw any lines in the sand or to turn this vote into a litmus test of Catholic orthodoxy. Indeed, the differences of opinion about the facts themselves indicates the wisdom of a point the bishops made in their two landmark teaching documents on nuclear weapons and the economy: At the level of principle, the bishops can assert their position with great certainty and authority, but as the focus moves to the practical, legislative level, that certainty becomes less and their authority must be used more lightly.
The USCCB has made its decision and there is no going back. But, individual bishops will be called upon in the coming week to lobby their members of Congress. They should make clear, as the USCCB statements have not done, that they recognize that people of good will, with equal commitment to the pro-life cause, can differ about specific legislative proposals. There are plenty of conservative Catholics who are ever chomping at the bit for a culture war, and whose venom toward the President has colored their views of the health care debate. They see everything in black and white when, as shown above, there is a fair amount of contention about the facts themselves. The bishops should resist the counsel of those who want them to draw lines in the sand over health care. We don't need a culture war but we do need health care reform. Only the gravest deficiencies in the current legislation warrant stiff opposition and it is far from clear such deficiencies exist. Moral certainty is one thing; political certainty another. And, if anything is clear in the current debate, it is that there is precious little political certainty. Why should the bishops risk their moral authority on such uncertain terrain?
Michael Sean Winters