Catholic Bishops Declare They Will ‘Vigorously’ Oppose Health Care Bill as It Now Stands

By Fred Lucas | October 8, 2009 | 6:37 PM EDT

( - One day after the White House contradicted an assertion by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops that all current versions of the health-care bill permit funding of abortion, the Catholic bishops declared they would “vigorously” oppose the bill if it was not changed to include language to prohibit abortion funding.
On Sept. 30, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), which represents the approximately 300 active bishops in the United States, sent a letter to members of the U.S. Senate in which the bishops said: “So far, the health reform bills considered in committee, including the new Senate Finance Committee bill, have not met President Obama’s challenge of barring use of federal dollars for abortion.”
At Wednesday’s White House press briefing, read the bishops’ statement to Gibbs and asked: “Is that statement wrong?”
“Well, I don't want to get me into trouble at church,” said Gibbs. “But I would mention there's a law that precludes the use of federal funds for abortion that isn’t going to be changed in these health care bills.”

Gibbs was referring to the Hyde Amendment, which has been included in each year’s annual Health and Human Services Appropriation since fiscal 1977. This amendment prohibits funding of abortion only in that particular fiscal year and only among funds appropriated through that particular bill.

The programs being set up by the health-care bill under consideration in Congress would not be funded through the annual HHS appropriations bill and would not be subject to the Hyde amendment--even if Congress deems to include the Hyde Amendment in future-year HHS appropriations bills.

Democrat-controlled House and Senate committees responsible for crafting the health-care bill rejected amendments that would have inserted Hyde-type language into the health-care bill itself and thus would have explicitly barred abortion funding in the programs that would be created by the bill.
When Gibbs was asked at Wednesday’s press briefing about these failed amendments, he pointed again to the current Hyde Amendment.

“Again,” said Gibbs, “there's a fairly well documented federal law that prevents it [federal funding of abortion].”
After Gibbs’ statement, the USCCB sent another letter on Thursday, Oct. 8, to all 535 members of Congress.  In this letter the bishops said that if the bill did not include language “ensuring no taxpayer money for abortion,” they would “have to oppose the health care bill vigorously.”

“If final legislation does not meet our principles, we will have no choice but to oppose the bill,” the bishops said. 

One of these principles, they wrote, is: “Exclude mandated coverage for abortion, and incorporate longstanding policies against abortion funding and in favor of conscience rights. No one should be required to pay for or participate in abortion. It is essential that the legislation clearly apply to this new program longstanding and widely supported federal restrictions on abortion funding and mandates, and protections for rights of conscience. No current bill meets this test.”

The letters of Sept. 30 and Oct. 8 sent on behalf of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops were signed by Bishop William F. Murphy of the Diocese of Rockville Centre, who is chairman of the conference’s committee on domestic justice and human development; Cardinal Justin Rigali, archbishop of Philadelphia, who is chairman of the conference’s committee on pro-life activities; and Bishop John Wester of the Diocese of Salt Lake City, who is chairman of the conference’s committee on migration.

House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio), one of the chief opponents of the health care overhaul measure, urged all members of Congress to read the bishops’ letter.

“Health care reform that fails to respect the sanctity of all human life is not reform at all, and the bishops’ letter confirms that the bills currently moving through Congress fail this test,” Boehner said. “It provides further confirmation that President Obama and Speaker Pelosi need to scrap the current bills and start over, this time working with Republicans to write a responsible bipartisan bill that will truly improve our health care system.”

Referencing the exchange between Gibbs and, the National Right to Life Committee said the White House is engaged in a “smuggling operation.”

“Gibbs' statement is one more proof, if any more were needed, that the White House is actively engaged in a political smuggling operation--an attempt to achieve funding of elective abortion by the federal government, cloaked in smokescreens of contrived language and outright deception,” said Douglas Johnson, the NRLC’s legislative director.

“There is no current federal law that would prevent the new programs created by the pending health care bills from paying for abortion on demand--and the White House knows this full well,” Johnson said. “Only language written directly into the bills would prevent government funding of abortions--but such language has been blocked by the Democratic chairmen of five congressional committees, with White House cooperation, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is refusing to allow the House to even vote on adding a true Hyde Amendment to the health care bill.”

That hasn’t prevented President Obama and top administration officials from stating numerous times that the health care bill would not allow abortion funding.

In an August 19 talk on BlogTalkRadio, Obama said people who say that the health care bill involves government funding of abortion are fabricators who are trying to prevent the government from carrying out “a core ethical and moral obligation.” 

“You’ve heard that this is all going to mean government funding of abortion. Not true,” Obama said. “This is all--these are all fabrications that have been put out there in order to discourage people from meeting what I consider to be a core ethical and moral obligation. And that is that we look out for one another. That I am my brother’s keeper and my sister’s keeper. And in the wealthiest nation on earth right now, we are neglecting to live up to that call.”

On Aug. 20, Obama said, “There are no plans under health reform to revoke the existing prohibition on using federal taxpayer dollars for abortions. Nobody is talking about changing that existing provision, the Hyde Amendment. Let's be clear about that. It's just not true.”

In his Sept. 9 speech to a joint session of Congress, Obama said, “One more misunderstanding I want to clear up--under our plan, no federal dollars will be used to fund abortions.”

When Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius appeared on ABC’s “This Week with George Stephanopoulos” on Sept. 13, Stephanopoulos asked her if the bill would explicitly rule out public funding of abortion. She said it would, and said that given what President Obama was saying about prohibiting funding of abortion in the bill the Catholic bishops “endorse moving forward.”
“Secretary Sebelius, what's wrong with … making it explicit in the bill that no public funding should go toward abortions?” asked Stephanopoulos.

“Well, I think that's what the president intends to do,” said Sebelius. “There's no intent to change the language that's in the current Medicaid statute, which has been there for years and provides insurance to millions of Americans. And in fact, recently the Catholic bishops came out, after the president's statement, saying that his statement about what he intends in the plan, that no public funds would go to fund abortions, and the fact that he has come out firmly for insuring all Americans and saying it's a moral issue as well as an economic issue, and they endorse moving forward. So I think that, you know, the legislative language will reflect what the president has just said.”

Stephanopoulos followed up: “So you're saying it will go beyond what we have seen so far in the House and explicitly rule out any public funding for abortion?"

“Well,” said Sebelius, “that's exactly what the president said and I think that's what he intends that the bill he signs will do.”
Language included in both House and Senate versions of the health-care bill would subsidize health insurance premiums for people making up to 400 percent of the poverty level, and these federal subsidies would be payable to insurance plans that cover abortion. The bills provide that people using federal money to buy abortion-providing health insurance plans would have to pay an additional premium of at least $1 of their own money--under the theory that this additional premium, but not the federal dollars going to the plan, would pay for the abortions covered by the plan.

In an Aug. 11 letter to members of Congress on behalf of the bishops, Cardinal Justin Rigali called this “a legal fiction” and “an illusion.” 

“The committee rejected an amendment to extend this longstanding policy [the Hyde Amendment] to the use of federal subsidies for health care premiums under this Act,” said Cardinal Rigali. “Instead the committee created a legal fiction, a paper separation between federal funding and abortion: Federal funds will subsidize the public plan, as well as private health plans that include abortion on demand; but anyone who purchases these plans is required to pay a premium out of his or her own pocket (specified in the Act to be at least $1.00 a month) to cover all abortions beyond those eligible for federal funds under the current Hyde amendment. Thus some will claim that federal taxpayer funds do not support abortion under the Act. But this is an illusion. Funds paid into these plans are fungible, and federal taxpayer funds will subsidize the operating budget and provider networks that expand access to abortions.”

Last month, after the president told the joint session of Congress that the health care bill did not fund abortion, talked to Senior White House advisor David Axelrod about the contradiction between what the president said and what the bishops said.

“We’ve talked to the bishops, and the president made his position clear on this,” said Axelrod. “Hopefully, they will come to see that the assertion he made tonight is accurate.”

“This should not be turned into a debate about abortion,” Axelrod said. “It’s about making sure people don’t get thrown off their insurance if they get sick. It’s about making sure if people have preexisting conditions they can still get insurance. This is about people not going broke if they become seriously ill, and this is about people who don’t have insurance having the opportunity to get it. And we ought not to be diverted.”
“I think the church has been a great progressive force on issues like this,” said Axelrod. “Hopefully, bishops will see a way to support this (health care reform legislation).”

The bishops made clear in their Oct. 8 letter to all members of Congress that not only do they not see a way to support the bill as it now stands, they will actively oppose it.

“We sincerely hope that the legislation will not fall short of our criteria,” the bishops said in the Oct. 8 letter. “However, we remain apprehensive when amendments protecting freedom of conscience and ensuring no taxpayer money for abortion are defeated in committee votes. If acceptable language in these areas cannot be found, we will have to oppose the health care bill vigorously.”