Catholics Split Over Health Care

By MichaelJames

Mar 19, 2010 7:57pm

ABC News’ Christina Capatides reports:

We’re used to hearing Republicans and Democrats debate over whether the Obama administration’s health care bill allows for abortions.  As Americans, we’ve come to expect that the back-and-forth between House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Minority Leader John Boehner won’t necessarily match up. What we may not expect is to see the U.S. Roman Catholic Church split over the abortion language in the Senate bill.  And that is exactly what has happened.

On one side of the debate are U.S. Roman Catholic bishops, who oppose the bill. On the other are U.S. Roman Catholic nuns and U.S. Roman Catholic hospitals. Caught in the crossfire, then, are U.S. anti-abortion Democrats.

"I think what is going on here is kind of a political tactic that has been used elsewhere, where you divide the potential enemies in such a way that people who can't be brought over to your way of thinking are isolated," Chicago Cardinal Francis George told The Associated Press.

If he’s right, this feud may give anti-abortion Democrats the space they need to vote for the bill.

While many such Democrats appear to be standing firm against the bill (Rep. Bart Stupak D-Mich., for example), Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, said today that he is “almost there” on the side of the nuns and Catholic Health Association (which represents 600 Catholic hospitals). And Rep. Tim Ryan, an anti-abortion Democrat from Ohio, has said through a spokesman that he has officially decided to vote for the bill.

On the House floor today, Rep. Ryan took aim at the GOP for arguing that, “seniors are against it, but then AARP endorses it. Our friends on the other side say doctors are against it, but the American Medical Association endorses it. … You say that this is pro-abortion [and yet] you have 59,000 Catholic nuns from across the country endorsing this bill, 600 Catholic hospitals, 1,400 Catholic nursing homes endorsing this bill."

Both Republicans and Democrats know that Sunday’s vote is sure to be a close one. So, the potential for this Catholic rift to sway a few anti-abortion Democrats’ votes and, thus, have an impact on the final outcome is huge. And, likely, the Obama administration is not overlooking it.

In an interview with ABC News' Jake Tapper Thursday, even Vice President Biden, a Roman Catholic himself, admitted to personally calling several of the anti-abortion Democrats in question to assure them that the bill, “keeps the principles of the Hyde Amendment, which says no federal dollars can be spent in order to pay for abortion.”

“And so I assured them,” he continued, “this will not allow you to take any subsidized government money you get and say, 'With that money I'm going to go now … purchase an insurance plan that provides for abortions.'  The principle is intact.  And so I'm confident even the bishops, once this bill is passed and [they] see how it operates, are not going to have the concern any longer.”

Regardless of the outcome, the effect of this timely rift has been twofold: First, it has, once again, called into question which group has the authority to speak for the Catholic faith on matters of public policy.  And, second, it has directed even more media attention and political pressure onto the small group of undecided Democrats with the potential to provide the elusive 216th vote.

-Christina Capatides

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