Will abortion derail healthcare reform?

Whatever the fallout from Nebraska Democrat Ben Nelson’s failed attempt to insert new abortion restrictions into the Senate’s healthcare package, it appears increasingly likely that reform will be made hostage to this most divisive of issues.

In the process, it also appears that America’s Catholic bishops, who have supported some form of government health insurance as a fundamental right for nearly a century, are determined to transform themselves into

a single-issue constituency. If that occurs, it will constitute a transformation almost as historic as

passage of universal healthcare


The Senate’s current plan allows insurance plans participating in government-subsidized exchanges

-- with or without a “public option” -- to cover abortion so long as no federal money is used to pay for the procedure. That’s essentially the compromise that has prevailed in federally supported healthcare schemes since passage of the Hyde amendment in 1976. Nelson doesn’t agree, and, like Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) -- who won passage of a similar amendment in the House -- he wants to prohibit any public or private plan that participates in a government-sponsored exchange from covering abortion.


For their part, spokesmen for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which so far has played an influential role in the healthcare debate, said Monday that it will oppose any bill that does not include restrictions of the sort Nelson and Stupak advocate -- no matter what else the legislation might achieve. Essentially, it’s a position that turns the bishops into the National Rifle Assn. with pectoral crosses.

As Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, Maryland’s former lieutenant governor, said Tuesday: “As Catholics, are we so laser-focused on the issue of abortion that we are willing to join ‘tea partyers’ and the like to bring down the healthcare reform bill? And at the enormous expense of millions of Americans who suffer every day because they can’t afford to get checkups, because they must choose bankruptcy in order to save the life of their loved one?”

Townsend went on to note that “organizations like Catholic Charities receive hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funding for nonreligious services as long as those funds are separated from religious work. If this solution is good enough for Catholic organizations, then it is certainly good enough for healthcare reform. And it reflects well on the tolerant and pluralistic society we have created.”

Moreover, as Stephen Carter, the Yale law professor who has made one of the most eloquent cases for the role of religious conscience in our public life, long ago pointed out, neither political party’s current orthodoxy on abortion reflects the broad -- and now, long-settled -- popular consensus on the question: The procedure, most Americans believe, ought to be safe and legal but morally discouraged.

In an Op-Ed article for the New York Times on Tuesday, Los Angeles Cardinal Roger M. Mahony noted that both the Senate and House healthcare reform proposals fall short on abortion, on protection of medical professionals’ right to act on their consciences, on the cost to individuals and on the extension of coverage to immigrants.

While stressing the fundamental importance of all four issues, Mahony’s argument focused on the implications of the bills for immigrants. He made a compelling case for swimming against the political tide and including provisions that would allow immigrants, whatever their legal status, to buy into any new healthcare scheme with their own money. (The House reform bill makes such a provision; the Senate proposals currently do not.)

“To deny our immigrant brothers and sisters basic healthcare coverage is immoral,” Mahony wrote. “To allow people’s basic health needs to be trumped by divisive politics violates American standards of decency and compassion. We should pass healthcare reform that provides access to all, in the interests of the common good. We must also enact comprehensive immigration reform that better balances our country’s need for a stable workforce with the orderly flow of immigrants to help bring greater prosperity to all Americans. Otherwise, in our country there will remain a permanent underclass left standing in the waiting room, asking for a doctor’s visit that will never come.”

If the cardinal’s brother bishops who disagree prevail and abandon their church’s historic support for universal healthcare, rather than accept an abortion compromise that preserves a 33-year-old status quo, they’ll have done more than turn themselves into a single-issue constituency. They’ll have broken with a long tradition of not disdaining what is inarguably good in pursuit of unattainable perfection, which has been a hallmark of modern Catholicism’s contribution to American politics.

It’s hard to see how any defensible notion of the common good will be served by the loss of that prudent voice of moral reason.