When a cadre of pro-life House Democrats, led by Bart Stupak of Michigan, insisted that health care reform live up to long-standing federal law on abortion funding and conscience protections, the U.S. bishops were naturally supportive and applauded the inclusion of these measures in the bill passed by the House.
The inclusion of the Stupak language ensured that federal funds didn't go to abortions and that insurance plans purchased with federal funds didn't cover abortion. This was consistent with the Hyde Amendment (which has been part of every appropriations bill since 1976), as well as current federal health plans (the health care that members of Congress enjoy), which do not include abortion coverage.
The inclusion of this amendment also prompted an outcry from abortion proponents, who said the House bill now restricted women's access to abortion (actually, women receiving federal funds for their health care would be able to purchase abortion coverage with their own money under the Stupak Amendment). The pro-abortion side also turned its ire to the bishops themselves, whose advocacy (so welcome on issues like immigration and war) now amounted to, as they saw it, meddling in politics. They also turned their attention to the Senate, determined not to allow this to happen again.
When the bishops turned to the Senate, they were confronted with a bill that was more lacking than the House bill on not one, but all three of their areas of concern -- affordability, immigrants and life and conscience issues. The bishops told the Senate as much in a November 20 letter (Spanish).
Fortunately, around this time, Senator Ben Nelson, a pro-life Democrat from Nebraska, Republican Senator Orrin Hatch or Utah and another pro-life Democrat, another pro-life Democrat, Senator Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, introduced an amendment that would address the abortion and conscience problems in the Senate bill.
The bishops were supportive of this amendment, but after a day or so of debate, the Senate voted to table it, a procedural way of defeating it for now. The bishops were not supportive, but in fact deeply disappointed by this.
As the legislative process continues to move forward on health care reform, the bishops have stated strongly that the House provisions on abortion funding and coverage should prevail. As always, the bishops want legislation that makes health care affordable to all, respects human life, and does not harm the plight of immigrants. But Cardinal Francis George, president of the U.S. bishops, warned, "Failure to exclude abortion funding will turn allies into adversaries and require us and others to oppose this bill because it abandons both principle and precedent."
The job of the bishops to teach and proclaim the morals and truths of the Catholic faith as they apply to this issue is, of course, made easier when Catholics everywhere educate themselves on this issue and join their voices with the bishops in calling for genuine health care reform.