Archbishop pleas for conscience rights protections

Rejecting a plea from Archbishop Edwin F. O’Brien, Maryland Democratic Rep. John Sarbanes voted against an amendment to a health care reform bill July 30 that would have prohibited any mandated abortion coverage, except in cases of rape, incest or life-threatening danger to the mother.

In a July 29 letter, Archbishop O’Brien urged Sarbanes to support amendments to America’s Affordable Health Choices Act (HR 3200) that would “ensure this legislation protects conscience rights and does not serve as a vehicle to advance abortion mandates or federal funding of abortion.”

Sarbanes serves on the House Energy and Commerce Committee that is considering the bill.

Cardinal Justin Rigali of Philadelphia, chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Pro-Life Activities, had urged the committee to approve a one-paragraph amendment to the America’s Affordable Health Choices Act introduced by Reps. Joseph R. Pitts, R-Pa., Bart Stupak, D-Mich., and Roy Blunt, R-Mo.

“The Catholic community has long supported health care reform that will ensure all citizens, regardless of their income or medical condition, have access to quality, life-affirming care,” Archbishop O’Brien said. “This goal is too important to allow it to become mired in needless controversy regarding the issue of abortion.”

Approved by the committee on a 31-27 vote, the amendment was brought up for another vote after a 35-24 vote to reconsider it. The second time around, one Democrat changed his vote and another who had not voted previously voted “no,” leading to the defeat of the amendment, with 29 for and 30 against.

“No provision of this act … shall impose, or shall be construed to impose, any requirement for coverage of abortion, or access to abortion, or to authorize or permit the recommendation for, or imposition of, any such requirement,” except in limited circumstances, the amendment said.

Mary Ellen Russell, executive director of the Maryland Catholic Conference, was disappointed in the committee vote.

“We’re working hard to see improved access to adequate medical care for all,” said Russell, head of the public policy-making arm of Maryland’s Catholic bishops. “We don’t want to see needed reform derailed by the inclusions of provisions we simply cannot support.”

Ms. Russell noted that conscience rights protections have long been a part of federal law and any attempts to change them “would make it hard for those supporting health care reform to vote for it.”

Nancy Paltell, associate director for the Maryland Catholic Conference’s respect life department, noted that “abortion is not health care.”

“Abortion has no place in this debate,” she said.

On July 30, the House Energy and Commerce Committee also took up a seven-page amendment proposed by Rep. Lois Capps, D-Calif., which would prohibit abortion coverage as part of a federally mandated minimum benefits package but would require at least one insurance plan in each “premium rating area” to cover abortion.

The National Right to Life Committee called the Capps amendment a “phony compromise” that would lead to “elective abortions being covered under the government-operated ‘public plan’ the bill would create, and would allow federal subsidies to flow to private insurance plans that cover elective abortions.”

Deirdre A. McQuade, assistant director for policy and communications in the bishops’ Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities, said her office was disappointed at the defeat of the Pitts-Stupak-Blunt amendment and passage of the “so-called compromise” Capps amendment.

But she said other amendments dealing with abortion were likely to be proposed as the various health care reform bills make their way through Congress.

“We’re several steps away from being able to say we do or do not support this or that bill,” she added.

In a July 29 letter to the committee, Cardinal Rigali said a “fundamental requirement” for health reform legislation is that it “respect human life and rights of conscience.”

“Much-needed reform must not become a vehicle for promoting an ‘abortion rights’ agenda or reversing long-standing current policies against federal abortion mandates and funding,” the cardinal said. “In this sense we urge you to make this legislation ‘abortion-neutral’ by preserving long-standing federal policies that prevent government promotion of abortion and respect conscience rights.”

Catholic News Service contributed to this story.

Catholic Review

Catholic Review

The Catholic Review is the official publication of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.