Senate passed Nelson Amendment language in two December bills, Catholic bishops note

Senate passed Nelson Amendment language in two December bills, Catholic bishops note

Cardinal Daniel DiNardo
Cardinal Daniel DiNardo


The U.S. Catholic bishops have again urged senators to place language restricting abortion funding into the health care bill. They noted that senators who voted against the Nelson Amendment voted “overwhelmingly” in favor of the same language in other funding bills passed on Sunday.

In its current form, the health care legislation would authorize federal funding for health plans covering elective abortions “for the first time in history,” the bishops said.

The bishops’ comments came in a Dec. 14 letter from Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, Archbishop of Galveston-Houston and chair of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (USCCB) Committee on Pro-Life Activities.

The Senate bill, Cardinal DiNardo said, has fallen short of the House version, whose language on abortion funding was “overwhelmingly approved.”

According to the cardinal’s letter, the central argument against the Nelson Amendment was that it goes too far by barring federal subsidies to entire health plans that include abortion coverage. Opponents claimed their alternative worked by “segregating” funds to allow “private” funding of abortion.

However, the letter points out, the Senate’s “overwhelming vote” that approved the Consolidated Appropriations Act also approved the same provision.

“In that vote, almost all Democrats, including almost every Senator who claimed the Nelson Amendment’s policy goes too far, voted in favor of that exact policy,” Cardinal DiNardo wrote.

Like the Nelson Amendment, the Hyde Amendment bars federal funding for “health benefits coverage that includes coverage of abortion,” including the “package of services covered by a managed care provider or organization.”

According to the letter, this language is paralleled in the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program, also approved by the Senate on Sunday.

“Neither of these longstanding provisions says anything about ‘segregating’ private and federal funds within a health plan or benefits package,” commented Cardinal DiNardo.

He explained that the main substantive difference between these current provisions and the proposed Nelson Amendment is that the latter explains that it does not prevent purchasers who do not receive federal subsidies from buying a health plan that includes elective abortions.

It also explains that it does not prevent purchasers receiving federal subsidies from buying separate supplemental abortion coverage with their own funds.

“Before the Senate considers final votes on its health care reform legislation, please incorporate into this bill the longstanding and widely supported policies of current law, acknowledged and reaffirmed by the Senate itself only yesterday,” Cardinal DiNardo concluded. “Please give the American people health care reform that respects the life, health and consciences of all.”

In a separate letter Cardinal DiNardo, Bishop of Salt Lake City John Wester, and Bishop of Rockville Centre William Murphy urged support for the health care bill’s Menendez Amendment, which would give states the option to lift the five-year waiting period for legal immigrants to obtain Medicaid coverage.

Arguing in favor of that amendment, sponsored by Rep. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), the bishops said legal immigrants who “work, pay taxes, and are on a path to citizenship” should have access to health care services for which they help pay. Access to Medicaid would help ensure the general public health of immigrant communities and the nation, they added.