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Abortion Language in Health Bill Pits Catholic Against Catholic

4 years ago
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Democratic leaders and faith-based supporters of health care reform on Thursday stepped up their campaign to convince the public -- and perhaps a few pro-life House members whose votes are critical to passage -- that the legislation does not fund abortions and in fact would reduce abortions.

"I will be 81 years old in September. Certainly at this point in my life I'm not going to change my mind and support abortion and I'm not going to risk my eternal salvation," Rep. Dale Kildee (D-Mich.), a Catholic and staunch opponent of abortion, told reporters on a conference call organized by Faith in Public Life, a progressive group that has lobbied for passage of the reform bill.

Despite intense pressure from anti-abortion lobbies, Kildee this week announced his support for the Senate version of reform that the House will likely vote on this Sunday -- and his imprimatur came because he was convinced that, contrary to the stance of the U.S. Catholic bishops and some pro-life groups, the Senate bill does bar taxpayer funding of abortion.

Rep. Charlie Wilson, an Ohio Democrat, is another convert to the Senate bill and joined in Thursday's briefing.
"I'm opposed to abortion, and I think the language in the Senate bill ensures that there will be no federal funding of abortions," Wilson said. "As a pro-life Catholic, I want to thank the religious leaders gathered today for making this issue even clearer."

A number of recent developments, largely within the Catholic world where universal health care has long been a priority but abortion funding a deal breaker, have begun to shift the momentum away from the prevailing view of conservative opponents that the Senate bill would lead to "massive" and "unprecedented" taxpayer funding of abortion.

Last Saturday, the Catholic Health Association and its head, Sister Carol Keehan, announced support for the Senate bill and said that endorsement was based in part on the belief that it does not allow taxpayer dollars to go to abortion and in fact has many provisions that would support pregnant women and adoption programs, and other measures that would reduce the abortion rate.

This week, an association of nuns representing some 50,000 sisters also threw its weight behind the Senate bill, and blasted "false claims" that the measure would fund abortion. Prominent Catholic leaders and publications, such as National Catholic Reporter and Commonweal magazine, have also issued editorials backing the bill and rejecting claims by the bishops and Republican-leaning lobbies such as National Right to Life Committee (NRLC) that the Senate bill is abortion-friendly.

At the same time, various analyses from health care experts, including Timothy Jost, a law professor at Washington and Lee University and a pro-life Mennonite, have effectively countered claims about abortion and the Senate bill made by NRLC and the Catholic bishops. (Jost was also on Thursday's conference call, as were Morna Murray, president of Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, and Ron Sider, President of Evangelicals for Social Action.)

Wilson said Thursday he sensed a shifting tide in calls about the health bill coming in to his district office in Ohio. "It's moving more toward support than it has been." He also suggested the House leadership was rounding up the necessary 216 votes for passage. "My understanding is that they are making good progress toward that."

There was even some hope -- however faint -- that the Democrats could still win over the only Republican to vote for any of the reform measures, Louisiana's Anh "Joseph" Cao, a freshman House member and former seminarian who voted for the House bill last fall because he supports health care reform -- as do the bishops -- but also because he liked the bill's stringent language against abortion funding.

Cao, who is exceedingly vulnerable as a Republican in a historically Democratic and African-American district, came under enormous pressure from the GOP leadership to reverse course, and he said he would oppose the Senate version over its abortion provisions, which he said are too porous.

But Cao met with President Obama in the Oval Office on Wednesday for about 10 minutes and agreed to give the bill another look.

"He's asked if I would restudy the Senate language and that I would approach it with an open mind. And I promised that I would go back and study the Senate language again," Cao told the Times-Picayune of New Orleans.

Cao said he appreciated the president's sensitive approach.

"He fully understands where I stand on abortion, and he doesn't want me to vote against my conscience because he, like me, believes that if we were to vote against our conscience, our moral values, there is really nothing left for us to defend," Cao said. "I'm glad that the president is very understanding. He really shows his own moral character."

That may be one of the few moments of civility in the next few days, especially within the Catholic Church, where various players are taking sides -- and calling names -- as the vote approaches.

Congressman Bart Stupak of Michigan, leader of a dozen or so pro-life Democrats who he says have vowed to oppose the Senate bill over the abortion issue, was surprisingly dismissive of the positions taken by the Catholic sisters.

"When I'm drafting right-to-life language, I don't call up the nuns," he told Fox News. He said he instead speaks with "leading bishops, Focus on the Family, and The National Right to Life Committee."

Stupak also said none of his dozen have defected, and continued to keep their precise identities secret. "K Street thinks they know who is on the list. They don't. There are some surprises on there."

The congressman wasn't the only one with tough words for the nuns.

Missouri Bishop Robert W. Finn scored the CHA's "permissive stance" on abortion funding, while Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput charged the nuns with "undermining the leadership of the nation's Catholic bishops, sowing confusion among faithful Catholics, and misleading legislators." Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann of Kansas, who during the 2008 campaign told then-Gov. Kathleen Sebelius she should not take communion because of her pro-choice stands, wrote a column saying the CHA was "providing cover" for politicians to fund abortion through health care, and he called on Catholics to protest to Sister Keehan and to tell pro-life Democrats they should vote against the bill.

Other conservative Catholic activists blasted progressive lobbies like Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, Catholics United, and Catholic Democrats as "fake Catholics," while the Catholic League's Bill Donohue called such groups "fraudulent."

Late Thursday, the Catholic sisters, who have run Catholics schools, hospitals and social service programs for the needy for centuries, even came in for pointed criticism from the evangelical Christian lobbyist Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council. "Breaking Some Nuns' Bad Habits," Perkins labeled his blast, in which he accused the sisters of being "unorthodox" Catholics.

Then again, there are nuns and there are nuns. A group of sisters representing perhaps 10,000 women in more traditional orders on Wednesday came out with a statement in support of the bishops, saying the hierarchy's position on the health care legislation is "the authentic teaching of the Catholic Church."

Catholic leaders who came under fire from the right largely responded by saying they share the same belief in the sanctity of life as the bishops and others, but say they are convinced the Senate bill in fact accomplishes that goal and defeating it would undermine the pro-life effort.

But they continued to keep up the pressure. The liberal group Catholics United on Thursday began running a saturation campaign of 30-second TV ads in the districts of eight pro-life Democrats. The ads aim to "debunk" claims that the Senate bill funds abortion and to counter similar efforts by conservatives to pressure Democrats in the other direction.

Passions are clearly running high, and positions hardening.

"The issue is politics now," said Sister Simone Campbell, head of NETWORK, the organization of religious women whose statement garnered so much attention. Sister Simone said there seemed little point in trying to reassure anti-abortion opponents of the bill because, she said, they would find something else to object to. "It's a moving target."

All that is left, she said, is for House members to summon the courage to vote for the bill, just as the sisters broke ranks with the bishops.

"It wasn't hard for us," she said. "It's a matter of faith and morals."

And, she could have added, lobbying.

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