Showdown On Abortion: Catholic Groups Face Off In Final Health Care Fight

March 18, 2010 7:42 a.m.
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It’s been coming for weeks. For at least the third time in the year-long fight over health care reform, abortion has become the seemingly insuperable issue standing between Democrats and their signature agenda item. And now, as we inch closer to a final vote on health care, Catholic groups are getting into the fray — and are opposing each other on the issue of reform.

On one side, there is the Conference of Catholic Bishops, who take a conservative line on the issue. Like Rep. Bart Stupak (D-MI), they are adamantly opposed to the language in the Senate health care bill, and, back in November when the House passed its own legislation, the Bishops played a key role in inserting heavily restrictive abortion language at the last moment.

On the other side, however, other Catholic groups like the Catholic Hospital Association and about 60,000 nuns are chiming in–as are key pro-life Democrats who support the Senate language–and they’re saying, in essence, ignore the Bishops, and pass this bill. The difference of opinion among Catholics could open up wiggle room for pro-life Dems looking for a way to support health care.But, there’s very little room for negotiating. The language in the Senate bill almost certainly can’t change through reconciliation, and many pro-life House Dems–led by Stupak–believe it allows for federal funding for abortion. That means it’s gut-check time and about a dozen on-the-fence Dems have started turning to priests, Catholic groups, and each other, for guidance and cover.

Stupak himself remains unconvinced. On MSNBC this morning, he reiterated his stance that the Senate bill funds abortions.

Yesterday, leaders of the vast majority of Catholic nuns endorsed the Senate bill in no-uncertain terms. “We write to urge you to cast a life-affirming “yes” vote when the Senate health care bill (H.R. 3590) comes to the floor of the House for a vote as early as this week,” the Nuns wrote in a letter to members of Congress. “[T]he Senate bill will not provide taxpayer funding for elective abortions. It will uphold longstanding conscience protections and it will make historic new investments – $250 million – in support of pregnant women. This is the REAL pro-life stance, and we as Catholics are all for it.”

The Catholic Hospital Association also endorsed the bill earlier this week, as did pro-life Dem. Rep. Dale Kildee (D-MI), who says voting for the bill is the pro-life. “I am convinced that the Senate language maintains the Hyde Amendment, which states that no federal money can be used for abortion,” reads a statement from Kildee, who once studied to be a priest. “There is nothing more pro-life than protecting the lives of 31 million Americans.”

And in another sign that the success or failure of this bill may rest in pro-life members receiving dispensation of some sort to support it, priests were walking the hallways of the Capitol, near House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office yesterday.

As of earlier this week, though, none of this movement was enough to sway another leading pro-life Dem: Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-OH). And most of the people who’ve been following Stupak’s lead continue to hold out. But Kildee is in. Rep. Jim Oberstar (D-MN) is in. Pro-life Rep. Tom Perriello (D-VA) is in. And that list will have to grow if health care reform is to become the law of the land.

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