The congressional debate over health-care reform took an unexpected detour into the contentious issue of abortion policy last month after an aggressive lobbying campaign by the leadership of the Catholic Church.
On Nov. 7, the House of Representatives voted narrowly to approve a bill extending health-care coverage to millions of uninsured Americans. During negotiations over the bill, a band of anti-abortion representatives insisted that a provision favored by the Catholic bishops be included.
The provision, sponsored by U.S. Reps. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) and Joe Pitts (R-Pa.), mandates that low-income women who receive tax credits to buy health insurance not be permitted to enroll in any plan that covers abortion. Critics say it goes far beyond measures in other bills that bar direct tax funding to support abortion. The net effect of this language, many analysts believe, will be to force insurance providers to drop abortion coverage.
National Public Radio reported that lobbyists for the Catholic bishops aggressively worked both sides of the political aisle in a bid to bring the bill into conformity with church doctrine. In addition, Catholic priests across the nation were ordered to sermonize about the issue during weekly services.
It was widely reported that Stupak met with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and insisted the anti-abortion language be included as the price of passing the bill.
Abortion-rights opponents were blindsided.
“The Catholic bishops came in at the last minute and drew a line in the sand,” Laurie Rubiner, vice president for public policy at Planned Parenthood, told The Wall Street Journal. “It’s very hard to compete with that.”
Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn told NPR he was “horrified” by what happened.
“What we saw over the weekend was an act of unparalleled arrogance on the part of church officials,” Lynn said. “Basically, they were claiming they would kill health care for the sick and the poor if the Democrats didn’t give them the votes to impose religious doctrine into law. It’s scandalous that this religious group has such extraordinary control over the fate of women’s lives in this country.”
On Nov. 16, Lynn joined a group of religious leaders at a Washington press conference to criticize the bishops’ action and urge the Senate to reject any similar entreaty.
“The church hierarchy now seeks through legislative action to accomplish something it has failed to get through its own efforts at moral suasion,” Lynn remarked. “Is it any wonder that those of us who are not even members of the church are upset and angry about this? We wish to live in the 21st Century, not an echo of medieval Spain. We do not wish to have the doctrines of the Catholic Church – or indeed any faith – imposed on us through law.”
Americans United also issued a legislative alert to its members on Nov. 13, asking them to contact their legislators about the issue.
Pro-choice advocates were pressing to remove the provision from the Senate version of the bill. The situation remained unresolved as this issue of Church & State went to press.