Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Church's All or Nothing Stance Against Healthcare Reform

My interest was piqued this past Sunday when the lector at mass pointed out that we should pay special attention to the insert in this week's bulletin about healthcare from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). In years past I've liked these guys because they've compiled some very helpful statistics about Congressional voting records on issues of social justice that are so important to the Church (and me), but I was a bit weary about this insert given the Church's recent inaction during the current healthcare debate.

Specifically, I wondered how many paragraphs it would take for them to mention abortion. As it turns out, the answer was zero -- they mentioned it in the title!

The Church places great importance on the availability of healthcare to all, regardless of their citizenship* or ability to pay. For these reasons they should be a champion of the reform efforts underway. Even if they don't want to become bogged down by the details and support any specific plan, I would think this would be a prime opportunity for the USCCB -- and the Church as a whole -- to make their social justice teachings widely known and promote the reform movement's work towards providing universal (or near-universal) healthcare.

Instead, the Church has been a huge disappointment, choosing not to help the reform process along but threatening to derail it.

Rather than seizing this opportunity to educate the public on its long-time beliefs on this issue, the USCCB -- and the Church as a whole -- has chosen to follow months of silence (really -- where was the Church back in August when townhall meetings were on the news every night and people were making up stories about "death panels?") by tying the healthcare debate to the anti-abortion movement. While I personally take more of a pro-choice stance, I cannot fault the Church for its consistent stance calling for the protection of all life. However, it disappoints me to no end that the Church would be willing to give up tremendous progress towards helping millions of people based on its position on an issue that is only circumstantially related to healthcare reform.

There is already a Federal law on the books that prevents Federal funds to be used to provide abortions, but the thinking here is that people who would receive Federal subsidies to purchase private health insurance could buy it from private insurers who cover abortion as a medical procedure. Again, I have no problem with the Church's opposition to that in theory, but it really angers me that they'd throw away all the gains in the reform bills simply because somebody could possibly use their subsidy to have an abortion.

Sure, argue against that possibility, but don't block the passage of the entire bill based on a theoretical situation. Is the bill perfect? No -- far from it. But as White House staffers are fond of saying these days, don't let perfect be the enemy of the possible. And why pick this issue now? Federal funds currently go -- directly and indirectly -- towards other issues that the Church is against. For instance, this past Tuesday night a prisoner was executed for his crime, using taxpayer money to pay for the act. Did the Church actively oppose the last Virginia spending bill that authorized funding for prisons? Did they threaten to derail the entire state budget process to end taxpayer support for a practice that violates its clear and consistent stance of protecting all life? (And did they do the same in Congress, which likely provides some indirect funding to Virginia's penal system?)

As it turns out, an amendment was added to the House bill that mandates the creation of identical healthcare policies -- without coverage for abortions -- to be offered to consumers using Federal subsidies to buy private insurance. While many pro-choicers are lamenting that amendment, I find it an acceptable, if not complicated, way to solve this problem. But why couldn't the Church have supported the main goals of the bill while working towards passing this amendment?

Instead, in this Sunday's flier and elsewhere the USCCB actively opposed the House bill and any other healthcare reform measure that didn't have specific protections against abortion funding. (Clearly the flier was printed before the vote on Saturday, because it gave no mention to the amendment.) Again, while I respect the desire to protect life, I strongly believe that they did more harm than good by taking this position.

If healthcare reform fails, millions will remain uninsured and vulnerable -- and abortion will still be legal. Why not at least take a big step forward in solving one of those problems?

*A second Church criticism of the House bill was it's exclusion of illegal aliens from being covered. Again the USCCB's stance was to oppose the entire bill rather than lobbying for this part to be changed. This at least keeps the Church from appearing partisan. While some Democrats are against the abortion funding amendment, covering illegals is an unpopular issue on both sides of the aisle.


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