The Bishops’ Line in the Sand

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The nation’s Catholic bishops are in Baltimore this week for their annual meeting, a gathering that should have its fair share of victory laps (health care! no abortion funding!) and skirmishes (how to deal with the Obama administration, the Kennedys, marriage, and a new translation of the prayerbook). It’s no secret that tensions have been running high inside the hierarchy lately. But given the stylized way that most bishops talk–something of a cross between diplo-speak and Jane Austen–it can be hard to spot the fireworks.

So for a lay translation of the week’s proceedings, I’ll be relying on the indispensable Rocco Palmo while I work on attaining my language proficiency. You can also follow along via live webcast, which includes entertaining commentary of the proceedings by a panel of nuns and priests whenever the meeting adjourns for a coffee break.

The last thing the bishops did before adjourning for the evening was approve a statement about abortion in health reform which appears to indicate that they will not accept anything less than Stupak language in the final version of the bill. The full text is after the jump, but I do want to flag this line:

In an essential step, the House voted overwhelmingly to reaffirm the longstanding and widely supported precedent that no federal funds will be used to pay for elective abortions.

As we’ve discussed before here, federal funds already indirectly subsidize abortions through a number of channels. In addition, the Stupak Amendment didn’t just reaffirm the Hyde Amendment precedent, but went beyond it by preventing private premiums for being used to pay for abortions in the exchange. The phrase most likely to rile pro-choice leaders here, though, is “elective abortions.”

Of course, the Hyde Amendment includes exceptions for abortions in the case of rape, incest, and to save the life of the mother. Abortion procedures sought by victims of rape and incest are elective, but almost everyone agrees that those women and girls should be able to end their pregnancies. On the other hand, abortions performed on women with severe pregnancy complications that go up to, but do not cross over, the point of threatening their lives–procedures that are not covered by the Hyde Amendment–would seem less easily termed “elective.” At a time when anti-Catholic sentiment and rhetoric is already flying fast and loose in the pro-choice community, this implied assertion that anything short of an abortion to save a woman from imminent death is “elective” won’t do much to calm the waters.

The full statement of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops:

The US House of Representatives advanced major legislation to provide adequate and affordable health care to all. The Catholic Bishops of the United States have long advocated that adequate health care be made available to everyone. In an essential step, the House voted overwhelmingly to reaffirm the longstanding and widely supported precedent that no federal funds will be used to pay for elective abortions. In doing so, the Representatives honored President Obama’s commitment to the Congress and the nation that health care reform would not become a vehicle for expanding abortion funding or mandates. The Conference will remain vigilant and involved throughout this entire process to assure that these essential provisions are maintained and included in the final legislation. We will work to persuade the Senate to follow the example of the House and include these critical safeguards in their version of health care reform legislation. We also thank the members of the House who took this courageous and principled step to oppose measures that would force Americans to pay for the destruction of unborn children, and the Democratic leadership for allowing the Representatives to vote on this amendment that protects the common good.

In the national discussion on how to provide the best kind of health care, we bishops do not claim or present ourselves as experts on health care policy. We are not prepared to assess every provision of legislation as complex as this proposal. However, health care legislation, with all its political, technical and economic aspects, is about human beings and hence has serious moral dimensions. Our focus is the concrete realities of families with children and their access to doctors, the poor and the elderly, those with limited means and those with few or even no means, such as the mother carrying a child in her womb.   Our Catholic commitment to health care picks up the pieces of our failing system in our emergency rooms, clinics, parishes and communities. This is why we believe our nation’s health care system needs reform which protects human life and dignity and serves the poor and vulnerable as a moral imperative and an urgent national priority.

We remain deeply concerned about the debate that now moves to the Senate, especially as it will affect the poor and vulnerable, and those at the beginning and end of life. We will continue to insist that health care reform legislation must protect conscience rights. We support measures to make health care more affordable for low-income people and the uninsured. We remain deeply concerned that immigrants be treated fairly and not lose the health care coverage that they now have. We will continue to raise our voices in public and in prayer; we ask our people to join us in making the moral case for genuine health care reform that protects the life, dignity, consciences and health of all.