There is no question that the debate about abortion rights has interrupted and undermined the push for health-care reform.
Indeed, the refusal to support President Obama’s proposal by a handful of House Democrats who oppose a woman’s right to choose has emerged as a serious roadblock.
Were it not for the demands of Michigan Congressman Bart Stupak and a few of his allies in the House Democratic Caucus–who want to include anti-choice language so extreme that it would undermine the reproductive rights even of women who pay for their own insurance–House Speaker Nancy Pelosi would already have the 216 votes she needs to pass the legislation being promoted by President Obama.
The rejectionist stance of Stupak and other Democrats who represent urban and rural districts with large Roman Catholic populations has been encouraged by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), which has taken an especially hard-line stance in analyzing reform proposals.
The bishops are actually supporters of broad health-care reform. Indeed, last summer, the USCCB’s Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development sent a statement to the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate declaring that "health care is not a privilege but a right and a requirement to protect the life and dignity of each person."
That was the right line.
Two months later, in a letter to members of Congress, the three bishops leading the USCCB’s monitoring of the health-care reform process restated that view, arguing that: "Catholic moral tradition teaches that health care is a basic human right, essential to protecting human life and dignity."
However, they added a codicil: Noting committee votes that had rejection of sweeping anti-abortion language — which would have gone further than existing law or practice — the bishops wrote: "If acceptable language in these areas cannot be found, we will have to oppose the health care bill vigorously."
And so they did, creating the opening for the draconian Stupak amendment to the House legislation and setting up the current impasse.
Now, however, new Catholic voices have entered the debate, adding nuance and character to the discussion.
The National Catholic Reporter editorialized Thursday in favor of the Obama plan.
"Congress, and its Catholics, should say yes to health care reform," NCR declared.
The influential newspaper’s editor’s explained:
We do not reach this conclusion as easily as one might think, given the fact that we have supported universal health care for decades, as have the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Catholic Health Association and other official and non-official organs of the Catholic church. There are, to be sure, grave problems with the bill the House will consider in the next few days. It maintains the squirrelly system of employer-based health care coverage that impedes cost reduction. Its treatment of undocumented workers is shameful. It is unnecessarily complicated, even Byzantine, in some of its provisions. It falls short of providing true universal coverage.