Catholic opposition to health bill fades

Demands easing for abortion curbs

By Susan Milligan
Globe Staff / March 18, 2010

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WASHINGTON — Roman Catholic opposition to the health care overhaul package is crumbling, with some church officials and lawmakers concluding that their long-sought goal of health care overhaul trumps the desire to adopt the severest restrictions on abortion funding.

A coalition of 59,000 nuns released a letter yesterday calling on Congress to approve the overhaul, defying the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, which opposes the measure. The Catholic Health Association, which represents 1,200 Catholic hospitals, has endorsed the package, as have Catholics United and Catholic groups promoting social justice.

That split mirrors a division among some antiabortion US representatives. In preparing to cast perhaps one of the most important votes on a domestic issue in their careers, they are wrestling with questions that strike at the core of their beliefs and that threaten to embolden voters in November.

Ardently antiabortion Representative Dale Kildee, a Michigan Democrat who once studied in a Catholic seminary, said yesterday he will vote for the package despite language that some believe is not strict enough in ensuring that no federal funds are used for abortions.

Another antiabortion Catholic lawmaker, Representative James Oberstar, Democrat of Minnesota, said he is likely to vote for it. Several other antiabortion lawmakers are undecided but say they will not let the abortion issue sway their votes.

The political fissure among prominent Catholics has buoyed the hopes of Democratic leaders that they will be able to enlist enough votes to approve a health care bill this weekend. Abortion has been a central issue in the debate and could make the difference in a close vote.

“Health care is a central theme in the teaching of Catholic social justice,’’ said Representative Richard E. Neal, a Springfield Democrat and Catholic with a moderately antiabortion voting record. “This chance will not avail itself for another decade, and the status quo is unacceptable.’’

Neal, who supports the health care overhaul, voted in December for an amendment sponsored by Representative Bart Stupak, Democrat of Michigan, specifying that no federal funds be used to pay for health care plans that cover abortion. That language, crafted with the input of politically powerful bishops, ensured the narrow passage of the health care bill in the House.

The newest version of the bill, passed by the Senate on Christmas Eve, has less restrictive language that says federal funds cannot be used for abortion, but customers in plans receiving federal subsidies can send a separate check to the insurers to pay for abortion coverage.

New England Democratic Representatives Stephen Lynch of Boston and James Langevin of Rhode Island joined Neal in voting for the stricter “Stupak amendment’’ in the House. Lynch and Langevin said they will not let abortion decide their votes.

“It’s not a litmus test,’’ Lynch said. “We’re talking about a health insurance reform bill that is going to cut costs for the majority of people in this country, improve quality while ensuring that patients can choose their own doctors, and cover the millions of uninsured,’’ Langevin said.

And while abortion is a fundamental moral issue for the Catholic Church, the commitment to providing health care to everyone “is a pretty strong belief’’ among Catholics as well, Langevin added.

Antiabortion groups such as the National Right to Life Committee and Americans United for Life have persistently and aggressively lobbied against the Senate version, arguing that it provides a back-door way for federal funding of abortions. Senate Republicans have scheduled a news conference today to slam the health care package for its abortion provisions.

House leaders say they had little choice but to accept the Senate-approved language on abortion because of congressional budget rules. Democrats are trying to pass the package through a procedure known as budget reconciliation. The House would have to first pass the Senate version of the bill, then both chambers would approve fixes to it, attached to a budget bill that cannot be filibustered.

However, only budget-related items can be part of the reconciliation bill, so the Senate abortion language could not be changed, senior staffers explained.

The conference of bishops opposes the current language, saying it defies the church’s deep beliefs that no federal funds should be used for any program that allows abortion. But the moral struggle in the choice between passing universal health care and fighting abortion funding is evident in the bishops’ letter to lawmakers.

Catholic bishops are familiar with the “anguish of mothers who are unable to afford prenatal care, of families unable to ensure quality care for their children, and of those who cannot obtain insurance because of preexisting conditions,’’ Cardinal Francis George, president of the US Council, wrote. But “despite the good that the bill under consideration intends or might achieve, the Catholic bishops regretfully hold that it must be opposed.’’

The letter from the group representing the nuns disagrees. “Despite false claims to the contrary, the Senate bill will not provide taxpayer funding for elective abortions. It will uphold longstanding conscience protections and it will make historic new investments . . . in support of pregnant women. This is the real pro-life stance, and we as Catholics are all for it.’’

Also, the bishops have been less assertive recently in their lobbying effort on Capitol Hill, several lawmakers said, a dramatic change from late last year, when they were helping to write the abortion language in the House bill.

Stupak maintains that he has about a dozen antiabortion lawmakers ready to vote against the bill in its current form. He won’t identify the members.

President Obama heard from two Roman Catholic health care representatives Tuesday at the White House, Sister Carol Keehan, president of the Catholic Health Association, and Robert Stanek, chief executive of Catholic Healthcare East. Their inclusion at a small meeting with hospital officials reflects the White House effort to reach out to Catholics in its health lobbying effort.

Representative Joseph Crowley, a Catholic who supports abortion rights, said the nuns’ letter could give cover to his Catholic colleagues who are struggling with the issue.

“I think they took their conscience vote, and I think now they’re looking at the bigger picture, the greater moral issue of the lack of health care for poor people in this country,’’ said Crowley, a New York Democrat. “I think a good number of the folks who support [the Stupak amendment] will not support the boycott of this bill. I think they realize this is important and needs to be done. They can live to fight their other battles later.’’