U.S. health bill not perfect, but progress, Catholics say

By  Nancy Frazier O’Brien, Catholic News Service
  • March 25, 2010
{mosimage}WASHINGTON  - As the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops quietly expressed disappointment, some Catholic groups reacted with enthusiasm to the passage of health reform legislation in Congress and the pending presidential executive order on taxpayer-funded abortion.

The House approved the Senate-passed health reform bill by a 219-212 vote late March 21, then voted 220-211 in favour of a package of legislative fixes which had to go to the Senate for approval.

Mercy Sister Mary Ann Walsh, director of media relations for the USCCB, said the bishops “want health care reform” and “pray that President (Barack) Obama’s promise that this bill will not fund elective abortions will be kept.”

In their last public comment before the House votes, the heads of the USCCB’s pro-life, migration and domestic policy committees said the health reform legislation still fell short in the areas of abortion funding, conscience protections and treatment of immigrants, and they urged House members to vote against it.

“After a year of divisive political combat, members of the House are told that they can advance health care reform only by adopting the Senate legislation as is, including these fundamental flaws,” said their March 20 letter. “The House leadership is ignoring the pleas of pro-life members for essential changes in the legislation. Apparently they will not even try to address the serious problems on abortion funding, conscience protection and fair treatment of immigrants.”

Sr. Carol Keehan, president and CEO of the Catholic Health Association, said that “while not perfect, the reform law significantly expands coverage, especially to low-income and vulnerable populations, and is a tremendous step toward protecting human dignity and promoting the common good.” Keehan said the bill “represents great progress in the long effort to make health care available and affordable to everyone in the United States.”

Patrick Whelan, president of Catholic Democrats, said passage of the health reform legislation was “an exhilarating accomplishment for us as Catholics.”

“Our church has been at the forefront of the movement advocating universal health care for nearly a century,” he said. “We salute the courageous Catholic members of Congress who worked so hard to craft and pass this landmark legislation.”

Archbishop Gregory Aymond of New Orleans said in a March 22 statement that he and other U.S. bishops were “disappointed that the health care bill passed in its present form.”

“We hoped Congress would redesign the bill in such a way as to eliminate federal funding for abortion and strengthen the conscience clause so that medical care provided in Catholic hospitals will not be affected,” he said. “It’s also disappointing that some of those within our Catholic family took a position that, in the long run, will not promote the good of society and does not help us live out the mandate of Christ.”

Chris Korzen, president of Catholics United, called the votes “an unmitigated victory for Catholic values, which hold that health care is a fundamental human right, not a privilege only to be enjoyed by the few.”

Much of the post-vote analysis focused on whether an executive order promised by Obama in an eleventh-hour deal to obtain the votes of Rep. Bart Stupak and other pro-life House Democrats would achieve its stated purpose of ensuring that no federal funds be spent on abortion under the health reform plan.

Morna Murray, president of Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, said the bill would “maintain long-standing restrictions on federal funding of abortions” and the executive order would “provide additional valuable assurances on these funding restrictions.”

But in a March 21 memo to congressional staffers, Richard Doerflinger, associate director of the U.S. bishops’ Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities, said that “the statutory mandate construed by the courts would override any executive order or regulation.”

“This is the unanimous view of our legal advisers and of the experts we have consulted on abortion jurisprudence,” he said. “Only a change in the law enacted by Congress, not an executive order, can begin to address this very serious problem in the legislation.”

The National Right to Life Committee said the promised executive order “was issued for political effect” and “does not correct any of the serious pro-abortion provisions in the bill.”

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