By Kirsten Evans
WASHINGTON, D.C., MARCH 20, 2010 (Zenit.org).- "A stunning conscience problem," said one.
"The biggest piece of abortion legislation since Roe v. Wade," said another.
That was the language used in a pro-life coalition press conference on Friday afternoon to describe the U.S. Senate's version of the beleaguered health care reform bill. The press conference was a unified effort to continue to educate and awaken American consciences about the true nature and scope of the bill.
A Senate vote on the controversial bill is anticipated for Sunday. If it passes, President Barack Obama is expected to sign it into law immediately.
Richard Doerflinger, associate director of the U.S. episcopal conference's Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities, was invited to be a part of the discussion.
Others panelists included in the conference were: Douglas Johnson, legislative director of the National Right to Life Committee; Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council; and Tom McClusky, senior vice president of the Family Research Council.
The press conference took place in the same hour as President Barack Obama rallied support for the bill in a crowded stadium at George Mason University, down the road.
"This is a patient's bill of rights on steroids," Obama said. "What we're talking about is commonsense reform. [...] It's a debate about the character of our country -- about whether we can still meet the challenges of our time, whether we still have the guts and the courage to give every citizen, not just some, the chance to reach their dreams," the President exhorted.
Not everyone agrees.
Matters of conscience
"The US bishops first statement as a body commenting on social policy in 1919 called for universal health care for all workers. We are very much in favor of that, and were in favor of it decades before it was fashionable," Doerflinger claimed.
"We have wanted to be able to support a health care reform bill. Unfortunately the Senate bill is morally unacceptable," he added.
Doerflinger points out that the bill, in its current form, violates the long-standing Hyde Amendment of 1976, that banned the use of federal funding for abortions.
The bill currently being proposed for Sunday's Senate vote appropriates $7 billion toward community health centers that would include abortion services, and would also allow for federal subsidization of private and public plans that cover elective abortions.
The legislation would also ban conscientious objection by requiring private health plans to charge all of their enrollees payments to cover abortions costs, including the many Church and charitable organization who previously avoided such payments by claiming a conscientious objection. Such an exemption would no longer be possible under the new legislation.
The proposed bill also narrows and nearly eliminates the conscience protections preventing governmental bodies from discriminating against pro-life health care workers and providers that decline to do abortions.
"This new legislation makes the situation even worse than it is now when run by the profiteering private market. I did not think it was possible for health care reform to make things worse than the insurance companies have made it on a matter of conscience, but this one has," Doerflinger explained.
Finally, the bill would give unprecedented authority to the Secretary of Health and Human Services and other federal entities to issue binding regulations easily used for pro-abortion mandates.
"Our goal here has not been that we need a pro-life bill." Doerflinger explained. "From the beginning [the bishops] have said that [they] care so much about health care reform; all [they] need is a neutral bill. [They] need a bill that preserves the policy of the long-standing laws on abortion funding and conscience rights that have been in place for so many years in all of the federal programs."
Concern for the marginalized
Another long-standing concern of the U.S. bishops has been the inclusion of immigrants, legal and illegal, in the proposed benefits of the healthcare reform.
On March 18, several Hispanic bishops joined Bishop John Wester, chairman of the bishops' Committee on Migration, in sending a letter to all Representatives in the House urging them to include illegal immigrants in health care reform, allowing them to purchase health care insurance at their own expense.
"It is our view that proactively prohibiting undocumented immigrants from purchasing health care for their families is mean-spirited and contrary to sound public policy," the letter stated.
The bishops also called for the elimination of the current five-year ban over legal immigrants accessing Medicaid coverage.
There is also concern that the most marginalized members of our communities would pay the highest price under wider access to abortion.
Some statistics suggest that under the new health care bill, abortion rates for the poorest segments of society could easily double. "The biggest factors driving abortion in our country are poverty, race, and all of the badges of race oppression that have marked in our country," Doerflinger lamented.
The press conference came in the wake of headlining news of Catholic groups in support of the bill.
Sister Carol Keehan, president of the Catholic Health Association, vocalized her official support of the Senate's plan earlier this year, winning her a personal invitation to the White House to meet with President Obama one-on-one.
More recently, NETWORK, a group claiming to represent 59,000 Catholic religious sisters, endorses the Senate bill. NETWORK describes itself as a progressive voice within the Catholic community that has been influencing Congress in favor of peace and justice for more than 30 years.
The mother superiors of several Catholic women's religious communities in the United States signed the letter of endorsement. Obama Press Secretary Richard Gibbs and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi touted the letter as a big Catholic litmus test win. Pelosi, herself a Catholic, insisted that "every nun imaginable" was included in the endorsement.
When asked about the discordant voice of the Church on health care reform, Doerflinger noted that the superiors whose signatures appeared on the letter later admitted that they did not necessarily speak for all of the sisters in their orders.
In addition, the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious, another group representing Catholic women's religious communities, later made a public statement supporting the bishops.
"It is not every nun in the United States, by any means," Doerflinger clarified.
Regarding the posture of the Catholic Health Association, he said, "I do not want to speak for their motivations. Like us they have been very anxious for health care reform for many years. […] They are afraid that if the bill does not pass, another one like it will not be seen for a long time. I understand their anxiety.
"But unlike us, they do not have policy people that work specifically on the legal and policy aspects of these pro-life issues in particular. […] I just don't think they have done the analysis."
Doerflinger insisted that, while very eager to enact legitimate health care reform for the benefit of all Americans, especially the most poor and vulnerable, the position of the bishops on the bill in its current form will be unwavering.
"This has got to be changed," he added, "and if it is not changed, however regrettably, after all the years we have tried to get acceptable health care reform, we will urge people to oppose it."
By Kirsten Evans