White House Says Catholic Bishops Have Misinterpreted Law Banning Federal Funding of Abortion--And Its Application to Health-Care Bill

By Fred Lucas | October 12, 2009 | 4:08 PM EDT

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs (AP Photo)

(CNSNews.com) - One day after the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops vowed to “vigorously” oppose the health care bill under consideration in Congress if it is not amended to explicitly prohibit federal funding of abortions, the White House for the second time in a week said the bishops are wrong to assert that the bill permits funding of abortion.

White House Spokesman Robert Gibbs told CNSNews.com the bishops do not understand the existing law restricting federal funding of abortion.

“There may be a legal interpretation that has been lost here, but there’s a fairly clear federal law prohibiting the federal use of money for abortion,” Gibbs told CNSNews.com at Friday’s press briefing. “I think it is--again, it's exceedingly clear in the law.

Gibbs had similarly contradicted the Catholic bishops at Wednesday’s press briefing.
In a Sept. 30 letter to members of the U.S. Senate, the USCCB 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.”
When CNSNews.com read Gibbs this statement Wednesday and asked him if it was wrong, Gibbs said: “Well, I don't want to get me into trouble at church. 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.”

The “law” Gibbs was referring to is 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.
The White House is nonetheless sticking to its assertions that the Hyde Amendment does apply to the health care bill even though the non-partisan watchdog group FactCheck.org has determined the health care legislation would allow for federal funding of abortions and the non-partisan Congressional Research Service has produced a memo that says the insurance subsidies instituted by the plan would not go through the annual HHS appropriation.
“As for the House bill as it stands now, it’s a matter of fact that it would allow both a ‘public plan’ and newly subsidized private plans to cover all abortions,” said an Aug. 21 analysis from FactCheck.org.
“In summary, Section 207 of H.R. 3200 creates a Health Insurance Exchange Trust Fund, appropriates amounts to the Fund, and requires payments from the Fund,” said an Aug. 28 analysis from the Congressional Research Center. “If enacted, all of these actions would be authorized without any further legislative action, such as a further appropriation in a subsequent act.”
On Thursday, the day after Gibbs’s initial statement that the Hyde Amendment would prohibit any funding of abortion through the health-care bill, the Catholic bishops sent another letter to all 535 members of Congress.

This letter reiterated the bishops’ position that the current health care bills do not prohibit abortion funding and that the Hyde Amendment does not apply to the federal subsidies the bill would provide to people to buy health insurance plans. The bishops said if the bill was not amended to 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 said, is: “Exclude mandated coverage for abortion, and incorporate longstanding policies against abortion funding and in favor of conscience rights.”
“No current bill meets this test,” the bishops wrote.
CNSNews.com asked Gibbs about the matter again at Friday’s press briefing.
CNSNews.com asked: “You said on Wednesday that the Hyde amendment would prevent abortion funding through the health bill. The Catholic bishops have repeatedly said that the Hyde amendment would not apply to the health care bill and yesterday in the letter that they sent to Congress they said that if language expressly prohibiting abortion funding is not added to the health care bill, they will vigorously--‘vigorously oppose’--that's a quote--the bill.  My question on that, does the President support the bishops on this?  And to eliminate this as an issue, will he call on Congress to have an explicit prohibition of abortion funding?”
Gibbs responded: “My answer isn't different than it was on Wednesday. There may be a legal interpretation that has been lost here, but there’s a fairly clear federal law prohibiting the federal use of money for abortion. I think it is--again, it's exceedingly clear in the law.
CNSNews.com then said: “But the Hyde amendment is only for direct appropriations for HHS, and that's--”
Gibbs interjected: “Again, I think that law is exceedingly clear.”
Don Clemmer, spokesman for the U.S.C.C.B, told CNSNews.com Friday that the organization would limit comment to the letters it has issued.
Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), the co-chairman of the House Pro-Life Caucus, shares the view of the USCCB that the Hyde Amendment does not apply to the health care bill and that the bill does permit funding of abortion as it now stands.  When asked about Gibbs’s remarks at Friday’s White House press briefing, Stupak told CNSNews.com in a statement that if Speaker Pelosi did not agree to allow a vote on an amendment prohibiting abortion funding in the health care bill he would work to kill the  bill be defeating the House rule that would govern floor debate on it.
“There are many of us Democrats in the House who are philosophically, legally, and morally opposed to public funding for abortions,” Stupak told CNSNews.com Friday.
“We want the chance to offer our amendment, the Hyde Amendment, on the floor of the House.  If our amendment is not made in order we will try to shut down the rule, preventing the health care bill from coming to the floor for a vote,” Stupak said. “If the speaker believes that abortion funding is not in the bill then she should let me have my amendment, because if anything it would just be redundant.”
Catholics have reason to grow cynical, said Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights.
“After listening to White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs two days ago, it is a fair bet that Catholic skepticism has turned to cynicism,” Donohue said in a statement Friday. “When asked about the bishops’ concerns, Gibbs said, ‘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. The president, however, supports the Freedom of Choice Act, a bill that would revoke the Hyde Amendment. Moreover, when Obama’s campaign staff was asked in December 2007 about this issue, the answer was clear: ‘Obama does not support the Hyde Amendment.’”
The 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 and thus would have explicitly barred abortion funding in the programs that would be created by the bill.
The Sept. 30 and Oct. 8 letters that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops sent to members of Congress 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.
In an August 19 talk on BlogTalkRadio, President Obama said people who say that the health care bill would allow 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.”

The next day, Obama pointed specifically to the Hyde Amendment as the existing law that he said would prohibit federal funding of abortion through the health care bill.
“There are no plans under health reform to revoke the existing prohibition on using federal taxpayer dollars for abortions,” said Obama. “Nobody is talking about changing that existing provision, the Hyde Amendment. Let's be clear about that. It's just not true.”