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January 21, 2010
Prayer, Penance and Health Care Reform
By Bishop William L. Higi *

By Bishop William L. Higi *

Jan. 22 is the 37th anniversary of the 1973 Supreme Court decisions Roe vs. Wade and Doe vs. Bolton. To mark that infamous day, Jan. 22 is observed as a day of prayer and penance for violations against the dignity of the human person committed through abortion and for the full restoration of the legal guarantee of the right to life. The Mass for Peace and Justice from “Masses for Various Needs” found in the Sacramentary is to be celebrated with violet vestments. This year, of course, Jan. 22 falls on Friday.

Beyond the Mass, no specific prayers are prescribed. The acts of penance urged can take a variety of forms, but fast and abstinence from meat are the time-honored forms of penance in the Catholic Church.

As a result of these two Supreme Court decisions, no significant barriers to abortion exist today in the United States during any stage of pregnancy. Roe vs. Wade appeared to create some limitations, but Doe vs. Bolton removed those limitations by providing a “health” exception so broad that abortion is allowed for any reason.

Over the years, an increasing number of people have become convinced that Roe vs. Wade (Doe vs. Bolton is part of the picture) is bad law, bad medicine and bad social policy, in addition to being profoundly immoral.

Yet, many continue to judge unborn children expendable. The fact abortion is center stage in the debate over health care reform underscores that sad reality.

At issue in the health care reform effort is whether current federal law (the so-called Hyde Amendment) should be maintained.

It is longstanding federal policy that federal funds are not to be used for elective abortions and health plans that include abortions. This policy consistently has been upheld. By a narrow margin via the Stupak Amendment, it was maintained most recently in the House-passed version of health care reform, the “Affordable Health Care for America Act.” The Senate version, however, did not follow the House lead.

The Hyde Amendment is not ideal, as many pro-life advocates insist. It allows for abortion in cases of rape, incest or threat to the mother’s life. However, it does prohibit the expansion of federally funded abortions. It is for this reason that the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has worked diligently to assure any federal health care reform be abortion neutral, that is, that it exclude the possibility of federal funding of abortions.

The position of the bishops of the United States, myself included, is that authentic reform of the nation’s health system is a public good, a moral imperative and an urgent national priority. The United States is the only industrialized country that does not provide universal health care. Other nations consider health care a right. When it isn’t, some people get the finest medical care, in the finest hospitals, while millions of others are left without primary health care coverage. But the health care provided must protect the life, dignity, health and consciences of all if we believe human life is sacred from conception to natural death.

Concerns about health care reform are deeper than abortion. People may object to the eventual health care reform legislation even if it contains the Hyde-type restrictions. But, without those restrictions the bishops of the United States teach that the bill should be junked and the White House and Congress should start over again. To support any legislation that encourages the destruction of unborn children is unthinkable. That’s the bottom line.

As I pen these thoughts, closed door negotiations are under way and no one seems to know the final form health care reform will take or if it will even become reality. In the meantime, there is much for which to pray and for which to do penance. Perhaps you may consider adding the following petitions to your daily prayers:

For young mothers everywhere, and especially those who are tempted to despair, that through the child they carry deep within, they might know hope and joy.

For all whose hearts ache from the sin of abortion, that God will soothe and heal them with the balm of his mercy.

For mothers broken by the memory of a child lost to abortion, that through the intercession of the Mother of God, the gentle and merciful love of God may heal their innermost being.

For a growing love of God’s little ones, in the womb, in nursing homes or at death’s door, that we might love with the love of Jesus.

For all mothers, especially those who are young or alone, beaten or addicted; that God might heal their broken hearts and seal them with his love.

That the Lord, who rescues the life of the poor from the power of the wicked, might send an angel to guard and protect all unborn children.

For (your U.S. representative and your U.S. senators), and all the leaders of our country; that God may make them strong and effective defenders of the poor, the unborn and the forgotten.

Lord, with gratitude for the blessings you shower upon me, I beg you to open my eyes to your presence in my life, and my heart to the gifts of your Holy Spirit. Strengthen my faith. Lift the scourge of legalized abortion from our nation, heal the wounds of those who carry the scars of abortion, and bring peace to our world. I ask this in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.

As long as abortion is legal anywhere in our land, what was said through Jeremiah, the Old Testament prophet, will continue to be fulfilled: “A cry was heard at Ramah, sobbing and loud lamentation: Rachel bewailing her children; no comfort for her, since they are no more” (Matt. 2:18).

That is why on Jan. 22 each year the Church calls us to do penance that hearts will be converted and life from conception to natural death will have the protection of law.

Most Rev. William L. Higi is bishop of the Diocese of Lafayette-in-Indiana
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