How the Bishops Lost Sight of Their Own Priorities

Jessica Arons

An analysis of the criteria originally set out by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops as priorities for health reform finds that the Bishops have moved the goal posts on their original insistence that reform be "abortion-neutral."

This article is co-authored by Jessica Arons,
Director of the Women’s Health and Rights Program and a member of the Faith and
Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress, and Ellen-Marie Whelan, a Senior Health Policy Analyst and Associate
Director of Health Policy at the Center for American Progress.

As longstanding advocates for universal health care, the
U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has played an ongoing, and increasingly
, role in health reform. Early in the process, they set out a
number of criteria—eight
to be exact—that they set as priorities to be included in health reform

Taking them at their word, we at the Center for American
Progress undertook an analysis
of their criteria, using their own classifications and definitions, and
examined whether the bills pending in Congress measured up. We found that they

From “access for all” to “priority concern for the poor” to
“pluralism,” provisions in current health reform legislation in both the House
of Representatives and the Senate would achieve significant progress toward
these goals. We also noted where the legislation fell short of some of these
goals, most notably the exclusion of undocumented immigrants from the expansion
of health coverage.

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Yet despite the fact that these bills would accomplish so
much of the Bishops’ stated agenda, they have continued to threaten to oppose
current legislation over one issue: abortion. The Bishops have stated that they
will oppose health reform legislation entirely unless it includes what has
become known as the Stupak-Pitts
, a measure in the House bill that would prohibit women receiving
health premium subsidies from purchasing any private insurance plan that
includes abortion services, even if no tax dollars may be used to pay for
abortion care. They refuse to accept the compromise, still in the Senate
language, that segregates government subsidies from private premiums in order
to address the concerns of those who do not want their taxes to pay for
abortions in circumstances beyond threats to the life of the woman and rape or

In doing so, the Bishops have moved the goalposts. They
testified in a congressional hearing that they would oppose legislation that included
as part of a national health care benefit. Both bills explicitly
exclude abortion from required health benefits packages, yet their opposition
remains. They also asked for “abortion-neutral
legislation. The Senate bill is abortion-neutral because it preserves the
policy of prohibiting federal funding for abortion while allowing insurance
plans to cover abortion. The House bill, however, goes far beyond current
law—rather than applying current policy to the proposed health insurance
exchange, it imposes new obstacles to obtaining private abortion coverage.

As our analysis shows, there are a number of ways both bills
would achieve the Bishops’ “pro-life” goals: they would save the lives of thousands
each year, reduce the suffering of millions, and increase the dignity with
which people are treated when ill. Moreover, providing quality health care to
women and families in need is a much more effective and humane way to reduce
the number of abortions than restrictions on funding ever have been. In the
United States, as throughout the world, restrictions on abortion make the
procedure more expensive and less safe; they do not make it less common.

The old adage “actions speak louder than words” is instructive
here. The clear implication is that, despite their statements articulating a
variety of priorities for health reform, the Bishops ultimately place a single
priority—abortion—above all others. This is indeed a shame.

The Bishops have the power to end this controversy should
they wish to do so. Whether appropriate or not, their influence in this matter
cannot be understated. Less than a month ago, negotiations among pro-life and
pro-choice legislators to forge a stronger compromise on abortion funding broke
down when the Bishops insisted that the Stupak-Pitts Amendment be put to a
vote. But there is still time to work out a compromise that both sides can accept,
especially if the Bishops signal a willingness to move in that direction.

The question before them is this: Is it worth jeopardizing
legislation that would provide nearly universal access to health care, improve
quality, be much more affordable, assist the poor and low income, reduce fraud
and waste, protect the conscience of providers, and so much more simply because
it would preserve the status quo on public funding for abortion but not impose
new restrictions on private coverage?

Given the immense good that could be achieved with health
reform, we fervently hope the Bishops, their allies, and their supporters will
place equal value on each of their stated principles and promote rather than
stand in the way of current health reform efforts. 

The Center for
American Progress fact sheet on the Bishop’s health reform criteria can be
found here.


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