October 20, 2009
An Abortion Mandate in the Making
By Father Thomas Berg *

By Father Thomas Berg *

Last week saw significant progress toward a final version of a healthcare reform bill which could be voted on by Congress as early as the end of October.  The path toward that final bill is so tortuous, however, that even experts disagree on just how it will be accomplished.  As explained to me by my colleague  Dorinda Bordlee, Executive Director and Senior Counsel for Bioethics Defense Fund, and editorialized in the San Francisco Examiner, the bill was taken behind closed doors in the Senate chambers under the direction of Senate majority leader Harry Reid.  From there it will eventually make its way to both chambers of Congress, but quite possibly without further input from the American public and without the opportunity for further amendment. Bordlee explained:

This scenario involves Senator Reid stripping an unrelated bill that is currently languishing in conference committee, and stuffing it with his preferred health reform language cobbled together from the Baucus proposal and the Senate Health Committee bill.  Once that bill comes out of "conference committee" it would then be voted on in the House and Senate in a straight up or down vote without the opportunity for anyone to propose amendments. 

Repeated attempts by pro-life legislators in the House, most notably Rep. Bart Stupak (D-MI), to insert prolife amendments into the House versions of the bill were consistently thwarted.  Now, lacking the possibility of further amendment (with perhaps one last chance for this when the bill reaches the floor of the Senate), the eventual bill is destined to broaden the federal funding of abortion. Consequently, as explained by officials of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, it is almost certain that the Bishops will have to oppose any final form of the bill passed by Congress.

As to whether the final bill will or will not shield federal dollars from funding abortion, the reigning fallacy among many in Washington is that any eventual bill will come under the sway of the Hyde Amendment. The Hyde Amendment is a provision added each year to the annual funding appropriations bill for the Departments of Labor and Health and Human Service.  It prohibits federal funding for almost all abortions and specifically prohibits states from using the matching funds they receive from the federal government for Medicaid to pay for abortions.

But as many pro-life leaders have futilely attempted to point out to the White House and leaders in Congress, any eventual healthcare reform bill is not in fact covered by the Hyde Amendment because the latter only covers appropriations for the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).  But the current legislative plan establishes that the federal funding for healthcare reform will come from general Treasury funds, not HHS funds.  Therefore, Hyde Amendment limitations in HHS appropriations will not apply.

As explained by Charmaine Yoest, President of Americans United for Life, the legislation currently in the works:

Would side step the Hyde Amendment and other provisions in federal law. If it becomes law as part of health-care reform it would make abortion coverage a part of the public option, funnel tax dollars to private health plans that cover abortion, and ensure that every area of the country will have at least one health insurance plan that covers elective abortion.

And as if that weren't enough, the bill is poised to fall well short of other long sought after goals.  A report prepared by Pricewaterhouse Coopers affirmed that the Baucus plan could hike the average insurance premium by as much as $4,000.  Arguably, this will affect not only those who buy their insurance directly, but also those who get coverage through their jobs. And besides taking aim at middle class Americans, the bill also falls well short of the goal of significantly reducing the number of uninsured Americans, according to experts at the USCCB.

In sum, our prospects for an acceptable resolution of the abortion provisions in this bill seem stark. It would appear in fact that President Obama's commitment to "common ground" on abortion has amounted to so much political pandering to pro-lifers.  There never was, nor is there now such a pressing moral imperative to reform healthcare that it required our legislators and the White House to ram-rod this through Congress. What a shame that getting healthcare reform right is being sacrificed on the altar of politics.

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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