Catholic Bishops, Keep Your Hands Off Health Care!

Is this a theocracy or a democracy?As Congress is working feverishly to pass health care reform, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is once again trying to kill it.

We’re having deja vu here. As Ms. reported in our current Winter 2010 issue, the bishops  swooped in during House negotiations over a reform bill last fall and insisted on an oppressive amendment, known as Stupak-Pitts, to significantly restrict access to abortion. It would prohibit public or private health insurance plans participating in the proposed national insurance exchange from offering any abortion coverage. Many believe that such a law would kill abortion coverage in all insurance plans, amounting to the greatest setback for women’s reproductive rights since the Hyde Amendment in 1976 banned federally funded abortions for poor women.

The House bill nonetheless passed with that amendment, while the Senate bill permits insurers in the exchange to offer abortion coverage.

Now it’s time to reconcile the two bills, and the bishops are renewing their pressure. Once again they seem to have the ear of Bart Stupak, the Roman Catholic, anti-choice Democrat from Michigan, who has said that he and an unnamed 10 or 11 other Democrats will vote against the bill if it doesn’t meet his religious standards .

But are his standards shared by the majority of U.S. voters? Hardly. According to polling by The Mellman Group, only a quarter of voters believe that the U.S. should halt health-care reform until we’re certain that U.S. monies won’t be used for abortions; half of voters believe that political differences on abortion should not hold up reform, and another quarter want to be sure that women’s right to choose is protected in the new law.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, essentially a wealthy trade association, doesn’t even represent the large majority of Catholic voters, who actually support health-insurance coverage for abortions, either in private or government-run plans, according to a September 2009 poll conducted by Belden Russonello & Stewart.

The bishops seem guided more by the Church’s huge financial interests, especially in health care. Did you know that there are 624 Catholic hospitals in the U.S., along with 373 other Catholic health-care institutions? In 2008, more than 90 million patients were treated at Catholic health-care facilities in the U.S, and many of their bills were paid by Medicaid or Medicare. In other words, the Catholic Church has a huge stake in federal funding of U.S. health care.

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi has expressed confidence that she has the votes necessary to pass the Senate version of the health care reform bill in the House. Then, certain budgetary matters–but only budgetary matters–need to be reconciled. But all sorts of complicated procedural shenanigans might be attempted by those hoping to either block the bill entirely or somehow codify the abortion language to the bishops’ specifications.

Here’s our message to the bishops: Hands off! Let’s keep the separation of church and state clear, and let’s have a health-care reform bill that doesn’t make religious judgments but instead prioritizes the lives and well-being of women and men.

Update 3/19/10: With the Sunday health-care vote deadline looming, Talking Points Memo reports that priests have been seen in the halls of the Capitol.

But leaders of U.S. nuns’ groups yesterday spoke out en masse FOR reform.

Checkout more health care coverage from Ms. here


Katherine Spillar is the executive director of Feminist Majority Foundation and executive editor of Ms., where she oversees editorial content and the Ms. in the Classroom program.