Too High a Cost, Too Great a Loss, The Anchor, March 19, 2010

Fr. Roger J. Landry
The Anchor
March 19, 2010

On Monday, the President of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, published a lengthy statement — entitled “The Cost is Too High; The Loss is Too Great” — expressing the opposition of the U.S. bishops to the present plan for health care reform being advanced in Washington. In it he displayed palpable and principled frustration that the bishops, after having advocated and worked for decades to promote a genuine reform of our health care system, would find themselves in the final position of needing to fight against it on ethical grounds. And he diplomatically but forcefully ascribed this regrettable outcome to the President and Congressional leaders who, despite multiple assertions that no federal dollars would go to abortion, essentially broke their repeated promises.

After the bishops have invested so much for so long engaging and collaborating primarily with the Democratic leadership, in presumed good faith, to try to secure an authentic health care reform that first does no harm, it’s hard not to interpret Cardinal George’s letter also as a watershed public indication of the depth of betrayal felt by U.S. bishops at the lack of honesty and integrity demonstrated by Democratic leaders — many of whom are Catholic — in whom they evidently misplaced their trust.

“Throughout the discussion on health care over the last year,” Cardinal George wrote, “the bishops have advocated a bipartisan approach to solving our national health care needs. They have urged that all who are sick, injured or in need receive necessary and appropriate medical assistance, and that no one be deliberately killed through an expansion of federal funding of abortion itself or of insurance plans that cover abortion.” The two principles of the bishops’ position were clear and reasonable: everyone be covered, no one be deliberately killed.

With regard to the latter principle, Cardinal George said that the bishops were asking for nothing more than “the provisions of the long standing Hyde amendment, passed annually in every federal bill appropriating funds for health care.” He added, with a touch of understatement, that “surveys show that this legislation reflects the will of the majority of our fellow citizens.” In fact, in at least 11 polls since November, Americans have said with margins close to 70 percent that they did not want health care reform to include tax-payer funds for abortion.

With allusions to President Obama’s September speech on health care as well as to numerous other statements by Congressional leaders, Cardinal George pointed out, “The American people and the Catholic bishops have been promised that, in any final bill, no federal funds would be used for abortion and that the legal status quo would be respected.” After so many public pledges, however, “the bishops were left disappointed and puzzled to learn that the basis for any vote on health care will be the Senate bill passed on Christmas Eve. Notwithstanding the denials and explanations of its supporters, and unlike the bill approved by the House of Representatives in November, the Senate bill deliberately excludes the language of the Hyde amendment. It expands federal funding and the role of the federal government in the provision of abortion procedures. In so doing, it forces all of us to become involved in an act that profoundly violates the conscience of many, the deliberate destruction of unwanted members of the human family still waiting to be born.”

He then got specific about what the bishops “find so deeply disturbing” about the Senate bill. “The points at issue can be summarized briefly. The status quo in federal abortion policy, as reflected in the Hyde Amendment, excludes abortion from all health insurance plans receiving federal subsidies. In the Senate bill, there is the provision that only one of the proposed multi-state plans will not cover elective abortions – all other plans (including other multi-state plans) can do so, and receive federal tax credits. This means that individuals or families in complex medical circumstances will likely be forced to choose and contribute to an insurance plan that funds abortions in order to meet their particular health needs.

“Further, the Senate bill authorizes and appropriates billions of dollars in new funding outside the scope of the appropriations bills covered by the Hyde amendment and similar provisions. As the bill is written, the new funds it appropriates over the next five years, for Community Health Centers for example (Sec. 10503), will be available by statute for elective abortions, even though the present regulations do conform to the Hyde amendment. Regulations, however, can be changed at will, unless they are governed by statute.”

The White House insisted on Monday, in response to Cardinal George’s statement, that the President and Department of Health and Human Services head Kathleen Sebelius have no intention to change those statutes. That, of course, is no real assurance. If there were genuinely no intention to pay for abortions through Community Health Centers, the Senate would not have removed the Centers’ funding from Hyde-covered HHS appropriations bills and would have had no principled objection to putting those promises in stone with the equivalent of a Stupak amendment, as mentioned in last week’s editorial.

Cardinal George also spoke about the absence of conscience protections so that individual health care workers and whole institutions would not be forced to do something they believe is unethical. “No provision in the Senate bill incorporates the longstanding and widely supported protection for conscience regarding abortion as found in the Hyde/Weldon amendment. Moreover, neither the House nor Senate bill contains meaningful conscience protection outside the abortion context. Any final bill, to be fair to all, must retain the accommodation of the full range of religious and moral objections in the provision of health insurance and services that are contained in current law, for both individuals and institutions.”

He wrote that the bishops “judge that the flaws are so fundamental that they vitiate the good that the bill intends to promote.” He also added that “assurances that the moral objections to the legislation can be met only after the bill is passed seem a little like asking us, in Midwestern parlance, to buy a pig in a poke.” He made clear that the Bishops aren’t buying.

“What is tragic about this turn of events,” Cardinal George continued, “is that it needn’t have happened. The status quo that has served our national consensus and respected the consciences of all with regard to abortion is the Hyde amendment. The House courageously included an amendment applying the Hyde policy to its Health Care bill passed in November. Its absence in the Senate bill and the resulting impasse are not an accident. Those in the Senate who wanted to purge the Hyde amendment from this national legislation are obstructing the reform of health care.” It’s hard not to believe he has foremost in mind Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Senator John Kerry, then-Senator Paul Kirk, and several other Democratic Catholic Senators who very intentionally voted against the amendment put forward by Senator Ben Nelson to add Hyde Amendment language to the Senate bill.

“This is not quibbling over technicalities,” Cardinal George insisted. “The deliberate omission in the Senate Bill of the necessary language that could have taken this moral question off the table and out of play leaves us still looking for a way to meet the President’s and our concern to provide health care for those millions whose primary care physician is now an emergency room doctor.”

He concluded by declaring why the bishops need to oppose the health care plan that is scheduled to be voted upon imminently: “Two basic principles, therefore, continue to shape the concerns of the Catholic bishops: health care means taking care of the health needs of all, across the human life span; and the expansion of health care should not involve the expansion of abortion funding and of polices forcing everyone to pay for abortions. Because these principles have not been respected, despite the good that the bill under consideration intends or might achieve, the Catholic bishops regretfully hold that it must be opposed unless and until these serious moral problems are addressed.”