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.

Nonetheless, the choice Congress faces is between the status quo and change — and the current bill is a profoundly preferable step in the direction of positive change. The legislation will lower costs, not only for individuals and small businesses currently burdened by rising premiums, but for the Medicare and Medicaid programs, which threaten to strangle the federal budget. It will extend health care coverage to 30 million Americans who currently lack it. Finally, a society that covers most of its citizens will be a society more likely to eventually cover everyone — our immigrant brothers and sisters included.

Not surprisingly, the NCR editors reflect at significant length on the abortion question, arguing that:

Much of the focus on the bill in these last days, and not only in the Catholic world, has been on its provisions regarding abortion. All sides agreed to abide by the spirit of the Hyde Amendment, which for more than 30 years has banned federal funding of abortion. But the Hyde Amendment applies to government programs only, and trying to fit its stipulations to a private insurance marketplace is a bit like putting a potato skin on an apple. Pro-choice advocates could not understand why a government that currently subsidizes abortion coverage through the tax code should balk at subsidizing private plans that cover abortion in the insurance exchanges the bill establishes. They have a point. Pro-life groups understandably worry that opening the door to federal funding of abortion, even indirectly, risks further encroachments on Hyde. They have a point, too.

This being a political debate, it was bound to get nasty. And nasty it has gotten. The Catholic Health Association and its leadership is taking heat for their courageous stance in favor of the bill; the nearly 60,000 women religious who endorsed the measure yesterday, even as their congregations face scrutiny from Rome on other matters, should be applauded.

While we acknowledge the thoughtful tone of the statement by Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, the president of the U.S. bishops’ conference, some of his confreres have taken it upon themselves to impugn CHA’s motives, the competence of its leadership, or both.

Part of the difference between the positions taken by the Catholic Health Association as well as by the leaders of the women’s religious communities, and that taken by the USCCB has to do with their different roles. CHA actually knows how health care is provided at the ground level. The USCCB’s inside-the-beltway analysis is focused on possible scenarios, many of them worst-case scenarios. The U.S. bishops’ conference is right to worry about such things and the sisters are right to put those worries in perspective.

In any event, what is being debated is not the morality of abortion but the politics of abortion, and there is plenty of room for honest and respectful disagreement among Catholics about politics.

That said, the bishops have to be clear that some of their talking points might lead honest observers to question their competence — or worse. In the past week or so, much has been made of the bill’s provision of $7 billion dollars to community health centers. The National Right to Life Committee chimed in that this money could go to pay for abortions at clinics run by Planned Parenthood. Back to Logic 101: All Planned Parenthood clinics may be clinics, but not all health care clinics are Planned Parenthood clinics. The community health centers in question do not, never have, and have no intention of performing abortions, and they are prohibited by statute from doing so. This is a red herring and it was profoundly disappointing to see the USCCB Web site give credence to it.

Bottom line: The current legislation is not "pro-abortion," and there is no, repeat no, federal funding of abortion in the bill.

The understanding of the legislation described by the NCR editors is shared by other prominent players in the Catholic community.

On Wednesday, a prominent retired bishop announced his support for Obama’s proposal.

Retired Bishop John E. McCarthy of Austin, Texas, recalled his personal opposition to abortion rights but noted that Obama’s proposal would maintain existing restrictions on the use of taxpayer funds to pay for the procedure.

While he acknowledged that many bishops would like to extend those restrictions even further, Bishop McCarthy noted that the church has for four decades advocated for health care for all.

Arguing that Obama’s proposal moves the country in the durection of that goal, the Texas bishop says: "let’s not kill it at this crucial moment."

And he’s not alone.

The nuns are stepping up.

This week, NETWORK, the national Catholic social justice lobby, announced that some 60 leaders of religious orders representing 59,000 Catholic nuns — including many in Wisconsin — would begin actively lobbying for passage of the reform legislation as Obama has outlined it.

Among the high-profile signers of the letter was Sister Marlene Weisenbeck, FSPA, the president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), the canonically-approved membership organization for leaders of institutes of women religious (Catholic sisters) in the United States.

Arguing that "despite false claims to the contrary, the Senate bill will not provide taxpayer funding for elective abortions," the nuns advanced the view that providing more health-care services to vulnerable women–as the bill does–"is the real pro-life stance."

Here’s the letter from the nuns:

We write to urge you to cast a life-affirming "yes" vote when the Senate health care bill (H.R. 3590) comes to the floor of the House for a vote as early as this week. We join the Catholic Health Association of the United States (CHA), which represents 1,200 Catholic sponsors, systems, facilities and related organizations, in saying: the time is now for health reform AND the Senate bill is a good way forward.

As the heads of major Catholic women’s religious order in the United States, we represent 59,000 Catholic Sisters in the United States who respond to needs of people in many ways. Among our other ministries we are responsible for running many of our nation’s hospital systems as well as free clinics throughout the country.

We have witnessed firsthand the impact of our national health care crisis, particularly its impact on women, children and people who are poor. We see the toll on families who have delayed seeking care due to a lack of health insurance coverage or lack of funds with which to pay high deductibles and co-pays. We have counseled and prayed with men, women and children who have been denied health care coverage by insurance companies. We have witnessed early and avoidable deaths because of delayed medical treatment.

The health care bill that has been passed by the Senate and that will be voted on by the House will expand coverage to over 30 million uninsured Americans. While it is an imperfect measure, it is a crucial next step in realizing health care for all. It will invest in preventative care. It will bar insurers from denying coverage based on pre-existing conditions. It will make crucial investments in community health centers that largely serve poor women and children. And 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 – $250 million – in support of pregnant women. This is the REAL pro-life stance, and we as Catholics are all for it.

Congress must act. We are asking every member of our community to contact their congressional representatives this week. In this Lenten time, we have launched nationwide prayer vigils for health care reform. We are praying for those who currently lack health care. We are praying for the nearly 45,000 who will lose their lives this year if Congress fails to act. We are also praying for you and your fellow Members of Congress as you complete your work in the coming days. For us, this health care reform is a faith mandate for life and dignity of all of our people.

We urge you to vote “yes” for life by voting yes for health care reform in H.R. 3590.

For a list of signers, visit the NETWORK site, which also features details of the endorsement of the Senate bill by the Catholic Health Association and a statement from the Catholic social justice lobby that reads:

NETWORK has been a strong faith advocate for healthcare reform for many years, and is on record supporting passage of the current bill. Like Sister Carol Keehan, we acknowledge that the current bill is not perfect, but it is a highly significant first step toward making healthcare available to millions of people who cannot afford coverage. We also agree with those who state that increased access to healthcare will reduce abortion rates. Maintaining the status quo will keep those rates higher while many people will also be denied lifesaving medical care. This is the opposite of prolife, and our nation deserves better.

It is time to move beyond politics and grandstanding. We need healthcare reform now.