The Catholic bishops made it into the White House briefing, not once but twice the first weeks of October. Presidential spokesman, Robert Gibbs stated on two occasions (10/7 and 10/13) that the bishops had misinterpreted abortion in the Health Care legislation. Gibbs said, ” . . . there’s a fairly clear federal law (The Hyde Amendment) prohibiting the federal use of money for abortion.”
Despite these White House statements, some bishops now threaten to oppose health care legislation. The official communication from Douglas Johnson of the National Right to Life Committee comes close to shouting out “You lie!” when it concludes that “…a vote for H.R. 3200 is a vote for tax-subsidized abortion on demand.”
So who’s right here?
In a previous column of Catholic America I looked at the issue about subsidies to people who couldn’t afford to buy health insurance – about 10% of the population. Then, the bishops argued that if the subsidized persons bought a plan that covered abortion, the tax-supported subsidy would be used to violate Catholic consciences because all money is in the same pot (“fungible” is the technical word). That objection, however, ignores how existing insurance plans that routinely segregate money by accounting procedures and thus comply with the Hyde Amendment.
The new October wrinkle in the bishops’ objections concerns provisions in the legislation that extend over several years. The policy would be set for outlying years, but the Hyde Amendment is usually attached to each year’s House appropriations bills. Without an explicit and separate reiteration of the Hyde Amendment independent of annual renewals, there is concern that one day appropriations might be passed without the Hyde Amendment as a carrier. This is getting down into the weeds of legalese, especially since the clear intent of the White House and the Democrats in the Senate and Congress is to abide by the Hyde Amendment.
I do not doubt the legal acumen of the National Right to Life Committee or of the Pennsylvania Bishops who issued a similar challenge even adding a requirement voiced by Pittsburgh’s Bishop Zubik to include illegal immigrants before Catholic support. (Most experts agree that the plight of non-documented immigrants is a substantial issue, but needs to be resolved separately for this already contentious health care bill.)
I question the tactic of releasing threatening letters to the media in order to influence the White House. After more than 40 years of advocating substantial health care reform according to social justice principles, Catholic America actually has something to vote for. The overall good to be achieved by supporting the bill clearly outweighs a backyard skirmish over technical wording. If the bishops need to add clarifying language to proposed legislation that repeats the Hyde Amendment, there are better ways of lobbying, I would think. Why not approach a known Pro-life Democrat like Senator Robert Casey, Jr. of my state to work from the inside? At a meeting I attended with the Senator, he said as much, pointing out that he broke ranks with his party when just such an amendment was proposed and rejected by the Democrats.
More troublesome is how more conservative Catholic bloggers have jumped on this opaque legislative language to resurrect stale vilification of the president. Catholic League President, Dr. William Donohue, intimates that statements in 2009 by the Obama White House are lies when compared with statements made in 2007. Fair enough: but if the League can easily pardon a lifetime of anti-Catholic statements from the Reverend Hagee, it seems it could avoid hypocrisy by giving the president equal opportunity to change his thinking and move closer to Catholic opinion.
Beware of the “spin” that makes muddied legislative opinion into support for “abortion on demand.” Such is not theology: it is right-wing politics. The question of upholding the Hyde Amendment has been asked and answered, but some Catholics won’t take “Yes!” for an answer. The White House has clarified that no health care legislation will override the Hyde Amendment (which allows abortions in cases of rape and incest). To claim that people are against you even when they say they are not is paranoia, not Church doctrine.