In the News 2009
Mother Jones

Catholic Bishops Call the Shots on Health Care Reform


We now know that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), which in the end run reports to Rome, was involved in the crafting and promotion of the Stupak Amendment, the provision that transformed a tepid health care victory for the Democrats into a serious loss for women’s reproductive rights. Hard as it is to believe, this sober conclave seems to have outstripped even the screaming fundamentalist Protestants in wielding influence over Congressional policymaking in this instance.

The Stupak Amendment was promulgated by a devout Catholic Democrat from Michigan, who is now being celebrated as a pro-life hero. He and 63 other Democrats insisted on the anti-choice measure, under threat of crushing the whole bill, and they reportedly worked with the USCCB to come up with “acceptable” language for the amendment. The bishops apparently had a direct line to the Repubican leadership, as well:  According to Politico, “Cardinal Francis George, archbishop of Chicago and president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, called Republican leader John Boehner to make sure the GOP didn’t play any games with the Stupak (abortion) amendment, sources said.”

Jon O’Brien, president of Catholics for Choice, despairs of what he calls the American bishops’ “obsession” with sex and sexual politics. In an interview today, O’Brien said these bishops are supposed to be dedicated to the sick, poor, and vulnerable, all of whom desperately need decent health care. Yet they have shown themselves willing “to burn health care reform” over the abortion issue–a postion that places them out of line with the majority of lay Catholics.

O’Brien points out that a recent poll commissioned by the organization shows that “while Catholic voters are split on President Obama’s ideas for healthcare reform, they do want to see costs lowered and overwhelmingly support a government plan that would make health insurance available to the uninsured.” In addition:

Catholic voters believe the US Catholic bishops are wrong on healthcare reform. Sixty-eight percent disapprove of US bishops saying that all Catholics should oppose the entire healthcare reform plan if it includes coverage for abortion and 56 percent think the bishops should not take a position on healthcare reform legislation in Congress.

Despite what many conservatives argue, Catholic voters are against refusal clauses for institutions that take taxpayer dollars. Sixty-five percent said that hospitals and clinics that take taxpayer dollars should not be allowed to refuse certain procedures or medications based on religious beliefs. In addition, 60 percent believe that hospitals and clinics that take taxpayer dollars should be required to include condoms as part of HIV prevention.

The poll also found that “large majorities of Catholic voters support health insurance coverage for abortions, either in a private or a government-run scheme” in order to protect the life or health of the mother, in cases of rape and incest, or when tests show a fetus has a severe abnormal condition. This makes them somewhat more liberal than the Stupak Amendment, which imposes narrower restrictions. Catholics are even split 50-50 on “whether insurance plans should cover abortion whenever a woman and her doctor decide it is appropriate.”

So American public policy on health care and reproductive rights is being shaped not by a majority of voters or even a majority of Catholic voters, but by a bunch of celibate men in robes, answering to a reactionary 82-year-old German in the Vatican. Does this mean that in addition to the insurance industry, Big Pharma, and other health care profiteers, we must now wait for His Holiness to weigh in?

The article originally appeared in Mother Jones.

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