November 17, 2009
Of Bishops, Healthcare and the Stupak Amendment
By Father Thomas Berg *

By Father Thomas Berg *


I must have missed it.

Apparently, late on the evening of Saturday November 7, as the U.S. House of Representatives was about to vote on the healthcare reform bill (H.R.3962), several Catholic bishops and a cardinal or two strong armed their way into the House chamber and forced a majority of the members (including 64 Democrats) to vote for an amendment (the Stupak-Pitts amendment) which would prevent the healthcare bill from opening new avenues for the federal funding of abortions.

Yes, I'm being facetious.

But given the level of hysteria, hyperbole and venom directed at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) last week by pro-abortion  advocates, you would think that's exactly what happened.

A fuming Jodi Jacobson, senior political analyst at the Reproductive Health Reality Check website wondered whether the bishops' lobbying on this issue doesn't prove we live in a de facto "theocracy."  "The USCCB apparently is running the US government," wrote Jacobson, "aided by a cadre of 'faith-based advocacy groups,' the House Democratic leadership, the White House and members of the Senate."

Rep. Lynn Woolsey of California said the bishops had "managed to bully members of Congress" to vote in favor of the Stupak amendment. She went on to suggest the government remove the bishops' tax-exempt status.

Get a grip, ladies.

Gerald Seib, writing in the Wall Street Journal last Friday had a much more objective analysis.  "From the point of view of the [Stupak] amendment's authors, and the Catholic bishops who were part of the conversation, the effort was simply to retain a two-decade-old position widely accepted as the status quo: Abortions will remain legal, but taxpayer dollars won't be used to fund them. That position represents a kind of rough national consensus on abortion policy, grudgingly accepted by all sides."

As to the bishops' role in all this, Richard Doerflinger, Associate Director of the USCCB Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities, explained:  "What the Church did here, on a large scale, was what it always does: It raised facts and arguments to support an effort in Congress, led by members of the majority party, to improve legislation that directly impacts Catholic values -- and it informed lay Catholics around the country so they could raise their voices as well."

How then does the Stupak amendment assure that healthcare reform legislation will maintain the status quo on the federal funding of abortions? The reform bill creates the Health Insurance Exchange Trust Fund as the means of funding new health care spending and entitlements, including "affordability credits" - subsidies for individuals making up to 400% of the federal poverty level to put towards the purchase of health insurance.  Without amendment, the bill would therefore have allowed tax-funded "affordability credits" to be applied to insurance that provides coverage for abortions.  

However, the Stupak amendment maintains the current policy of preventing federal funding for abortion: it prohibits federal funds for abortion services in the public option, and also prohibits individuals who receive affordability credits from purchasing a plan that provides elective abortions.  Individuals, both who receive affordability credits and who do not, are free to separately purchase with their own funds plans that cover elective abortions. This is currently the status quo in the 32 states (plus the District of Columbia) that do not pay for elective abortions with state money.  It is also the status quo for the federal employee benefits plans.

Of course, if a woman lives in a state like New York, she could still get a state subsidized abortion through Medicaid, provided she meets the Medicaid eligibility standards.  The Stupak amendment allows states to pay for elective abortions with their own money, just as the Hyde amendment does.

In sum, it was not the Catholic bishops who made Nancy Pelosi cave in and allow a vote on the Stupak amendment; it was moderate and pro-life Democrats, led by Representative Bart Stupak (D-MI).  They, in turn were responding to their constituents and to a majority of Americans (many of them pro-choice) who do not want federal tax payer dollars spent funding women's abortions.

Father Thomas Berg is a priest in the Archdiocese of New York and Professor of Moral Theology at St. Joseph’s Seminary (Dunwoodie).

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