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By David Waters
Confusion over whether and how government health-care reform will or should deal with abortion has resulted in an equally confusing war of words between Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy (D-R.I.) and Rhode Island Catholic Bishop Thomas J. Tobin.
In an interview last Friday, Kennedy — a Roman Catholic and son of the late Sen. Edward Kennedy, who spent much of his career pushing for health-care reform — called U.S. Catholic bishops’ concerns about the abortion issue a “red herring” that fans “the flames of dissent and discord.” Kennedy added: “If the church is pro-life, then they ought to be for health-care reform, because it’s going to provide health care that are going to keep people alive.”
In a sharply-worded response, Tobin called Kennedy’s position on the matter “irresponsible and ignorant of the facts . . . Congressman Kennedy continues to be a disappointment to the Catholic Church and to
the citizens of the State of Rhode Island. I believe the Congressman owes us an apology for his irresponsible comments. It is my fervent hope and prayer that he will find a way to provide more effective and morally responsible leadership for our state.”
Tobin’s response seems a bit chippy, especially for a bishop. But Kennedy’s comments do seem to ignore some crucial facts: Most importantly — as Georgetown/On Faith blogger Thomas J. Reese points out — U.S. Catholic bishops for decades have been at the forefront of the campaign for health-care reform. “The bishops are appalled that more than 46 million people do not have health insurance,” Reese wrote.
Should Kennedy be appalled that they are threatening to pull their support over the issue of abortion? Not if he’s been paying attention.
Kennedy made his comments in response to a question about an Oct. 8 letter the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops sent to Congress. In the letter, the bishops stated that they would “vigorously” oppose a final health care bill unless it were changed to include language that explicitly prohibits the use of taxpayer funds for abortions. According to the bishops, no current version of the health-care bill meets that standard. “If final legislation does not meet our principles, we will have no choice but to oppose the bill,” the bishops said in their letter.
Said Kennedy: “I can’t understand for the life of me how the Catholic Church could be against the biggest social-justice issue of our time where the very dignity of the human person is being respected by the fact that we’re caring and giving health care to the human person – that right now we have 50 million people who are uninsured. You mean to tell me the Catholic Church is going to be denying those people life-saving health care? I thought they were pro-life. If the church is pro-life, then they ought to be for health-care reform because it’s going to provide health care that are going to keep people alive. So this is an absolute red herring, and I don’t think that it does anything but to fan the flames of dissent and discord, and I don’t think it’s productive at all.”
You can argue about whether Catholic bishops are putting too much emphasis on abortion in this case — especially given the Administration’s assurances that laws prohibiting federal funding of abortions will remain in place. No doubt some bishops have politicized the issue of abortion to the point of becoming partisan shills. But as a group, Catholic bishops have spoken out consistently and courageously for universal health care — especially on behalf of the poor — as a basic human right.
As Reese points out in his blog post, the bishops have been entirely consistent about their support for universal health care — as long as it doesn’t also include support for abortion. In their 1993 statement “A Framework for Comprehensive Health Care Reform: Protecting Human Life, Promoting Human Dignity, Pursuing the Common Good,” the bishops laid out eight criteria for evaluating health care reform, including:
• Respect for Life. Whether it preserves and enhances the sanctity and dignity of human life from conception to natural death.
• Priority Concern for the Poor. Whether it gives special priority to meeting the most pressing health care needs of the poor and underserved, ensuring that they receive quality health services.
• Universal Access. Whether it provides ready universal access to comprehensive health care for every person living in the United States.
Those criteria haven’t changed. In their Oct. 8 letter to Congress, bishops stated these three goals for health-care reform legislation:
• No one should be required to pay for or participate in abortion.
• Reform should make quality health care affordable and accessible to everyone, particularly those who are vulnerable and those who live at or near the poverty level.
• Ensure that legal immigrants and their family members have comprehensive, affordable and timely access to health care coverage. Maintain an adequate safety net for those who remain uncovered.
“Catholic moral tradition teaches that health care is a basic human right, essential to protecting human life and dignity,” the bishops wrote. “Much-needed reform of our health care system must be pursued in ways that serve the life and dignity of all, never in ways that undermine and violate these fundamental values.”
Given that even Democrats don’t agree on whether current versions of health-reform legislation will or should cover abortions, don’t the bishops’ concerns seem perfectly reasonable and consistent?