By Nancy Frazier O’Brien
WASHINGTON (CNS) — The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops expressed regret that health care reform came with the possibility of expanded abortion funding and urged vigilance that an executive order by President Barack Obama would, as promised, ensure no federal funds will be spent on abortion.
Some Catholic groups reacted with enthusiasm to the passage of health reform legislation in Congress and the executive order.
The House approved the Senate-passed health reform bill by a 219-212 vote late March 21, then voted 220-211 in favor of a package of legislative fixes which had to go to the Senate for approval.
Obama signed the health reform bill into law March 23 and the package of fixes then went to the Senate for debate. He was to sign the executive order the afternoon of March 24.
“We applaud the effort to expand health care to all,” said Chicago Cardinal Francis E. George, USCCB president, in a statement endorsed by the USCCB Administrative Committee and issued minutes after the bill signing.
“Nonetheless, for whatever good this law achieves or intends … there is compelling evidence that it would expand the role of the federal government in funding and facilitating abortion and plans that cover abortion,” he added, urging vigilance to make sure it will not expand abortion funding.
His statement also said the new law “failed to include necessary language to provide essential conscience protections” or to allow many immigrant workers and families to purchase health coverage even with their own money.
Sister Carol Keehan, a Daughter of Charity who is president and CEO of the Catholic Health Association, said that “while not perfect, the reform law significantly expands coverage, especially to low-income and vulnerable populations, and is a tremendous step toward protecting human dignity and promoting the common good.”
Sister Carol did not attend the White House signing ceremony for the legislation because she was out of town. But she was one of 20 people who were to receive pens used by Obama during the ceremony, according to the White House.
In a March 21 statement, the CHA leader said the bill “represents great progress in the long effort to make health care available and affordable to everyone in the United States.”
Sister Simone Campbell, executive director of the national Catholic social justice lobby Network, was among about 500 people invited to attend the signing ceremony and had been instrumental in mobilizing support for the legislation among Catholics and people of other religions.
“Today, we want to express our deep gratitude to the elected officials who supported extending health care to 32 million people in the United States while not changing existing law on federal funding of abortion,” the Sister of Social Service said in a March 23 statement.
“We also celebrate the many voices of faith who engaged in dialogue about the legislation,” she added. “Although we did not agree about specifics in the bill, this important dialogue demonstrated our shared faith value for the sanctity of life.”
Archbishop Gregory M. Aymond of New Orleans said in a March 22 statement that he and other U.S. bishops were “disappointed that the health care bill passed in its present form.”
“We hoped Congress would redesign the bill in such a way as to eliminate federal funding for abortion and strengthen the conscience clause so that medical care provided in Catholic hospitals will not be affected,” he said. “It’s also disappointing that some of those within our Catholic family took a position that, in the long run, will not promote the good of society and does not help us live out the mandate of Christ.”
Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Denver, in a March 22 column for his archdiocesan newspaper, the Denver Catholic Register, called House passage of the bill “a failure of decent lawmaking” and said it “remains unethical and defective on all of the issues pressed by the U.S. bishops and pro-life groups for the past seven months.”
He also said “self-described ‘Catholic’ groups have done a serious disservice to justice, to the church, and to the ethical needs of the American people by undercutting the leadership and witness of their own bishops.” He mentioned specifically Catholics United, Network and CHA.
Father Frank Pavone, national director of Priests for Life, said passage of the legislation showed that “you can’t pass the right kind of laws without the right lawmakers in office.”
“America has spoken to its lawmakers about their concerns. The lawmakers have spoken back. Now it’s our move again,” he added. “This law will be challenged in many ways. And it’s time to prepare for November’s elections, so that the changes the American people see fit to make can be made.”
Patrick Whelan, president of Catholic Democrats, said passage of the health reform legislation was “an exhilarating accomplishment for us as Catholics.”
“Our church has been at the forefront of the movement advocating universal health care for nearly a century,” he said. “We salute the courageous Catholic members of Congress who worked so hard to craft and pass this landmark legislation.”
Chris Korzen, president of Catholics United, called the votes “an unmitigated victory for Catholic values, which hold that health care is a fundamental human right, not a privilege only to be enjoyed by the few.”
Much of the post-vote analysis focused on whether Obama’s executive order, which was agreed on in an eleventh-hour deal to obtain the votes of Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., and other pro-life House Democrats, would achieve its stated purpose of ensuring that no federal funds be spent on abortion under the health reform plan.
Morna Murray, president of Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, said the bill would “maintain long-standing restrictions on federal funding of abortions” and the executive order would “provide additional valuable assurances on these funding restrictions.”
Timothy Stoltzfus Jost, a law professor at Washington and Lee University School of Law, said in a legal analysis that executive orders “independently have the force of law” and are “not subject to legal challenge” as long as the president “is acting within his constitutional authority as the chief executive of the nation’s executive departments and not acting directly contrary to a federal statute.”
But in a March 21 memo to congressional staffers, Richard Doerflinger, associate director of the U.S. bishops’ Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities, said that “the statutory mandate construed by the courts would override any executive order or regulation.”
“This is the unanimous view of our legal advisers and of the experts we have consulted on abortion jurisprudence,” he said. “Only a change in the law enacted by Congress, not an executive order, can begin to address this very serious problem in the legislation.”
The National Right to Life Committee said the promised executive order “was issued for political effect” and “does not correct any of the serious pro-abortion provisions in the bill.”
“The president cannot amend a bill by issuing an order, and the federal courts will enforce what the law says,” it said.
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