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Beyond abortion to universal care

November 10, 2009

With the adoption of a House floor amendment banning the use of Federal money for abortion, the U.S. bishops are no longer opposing the Democrats' health care reform plan; in fact, they are supporting expansion of it.

With the abortion issue dealt with, the bishops can now speak strongly in support of universal health care. "We believe universal coverage should be truly universal, not denying health care to those in need because of their condition, age, where they come from or when they arrive here," they wrote the house on November 6. "[W]e reiterate our Catholic tradition that teaches that health care is a basic human right, essential to protecting human life and dignity."

The bishops, unlike many politicians, want health care coverage for immigrants, both legal and undocumented. In the letter to members of the House, they supported "access for immigrants to the health-insurance exchange, regardless of legal status," and supported "removal of the five-year ban on legal immigrants accessing Medicaid and other federal health-care programs."

The bishops also supported "provisions that would make health care more affordable and accessible, especially for the poor and vulnerable, by expanding Medicaid to adults who are living at 150 percent or lower of the Federal Poverty Level and offering adequate affordability credits for households up to 400 percent of the Federal Poverty Level."

What made the difference for the bishops was the passage in the House of the Stupak amendment, which reaffirmed that Federal money could not be used to fund abortions.

There is general consensus in Washington that the health care bill should be abortion neutral--that it not change the status quo with regard to abortion. But people disagree over what that means. Federal employee insurance, veterans health care and Medicaid do not cover abortions except for rape and incest or where the woman is in danger of death.

House Democrats thought they achieved neutrality with language in the bill from Lois Capps that said that the money contributed by individuals would be credited toward abortion while the money from the federal government would not. Pro-lifers and the bishops saw this as simply an accounting gimmick. said, "The Capps language also would allow private plans purchased with federal subsidies ... to cover abortion."

The stricter floor amendment sponsored by Bart Stupak of Michigan and supported by 240 members, passed easily with 194 opposed.

The amendment made clear that federal funds could not go to any health plan that includes coverage of abortion, except in cases of rape, incest or to protect the life of the woman. It does allow states to add money to the programs to cover abortion, just as 17 states currently do under Medicaid. It would also allow women to purchase separate supplemental coverage for abortion.

With the abortion question dealt with in the House, hopefully the Senate can now focus on other aspects of health care: universal coverage, cost controls, and insurance reform.

"This is a day for celebration among Catholics and all Americans who believe that life's greatest test is how deeply we care for one another," said Dr Patrick Whelan, president of Catholic Democrats. "We urge the Catholic members of Congress who have not supported the passage of this bill to follow the courageous example set by Representative Joseph Cao (R-LA), a Catholic and former Jesuit seminarian, and support this landmark legislation now. This reform represents progress in helping our nation to realize the Gospel imperative of making health and healing available to all Americans."

"Now that suitable language addressing abortion funding has been agreed to in the House bill, it opens the way for all Catholics - Democrats, Republicans and Independents - to support the provisions of this bill, which are in accordance with Catholic Social Teaching," said Steve Krueger, national director of Catholic Democrats. "Catholics have an innate understanding of the role universal health care coverage will play in promoting the common good. Now is the time to build on the success of the House bill and pass legislation that codifies our belief that health care is a fundamental human right."