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Washington Post on Kennedy-Church Flap

Interesting piece on the Washington Post blog, Under God, which considers the intersection of religion, government and politics. The authors suggest that Congressman Patrick Kennedy's critique of the Catholic Church's position on health care is misguided. As you may recall, Kennedy blasted the church for opposing any health reform package that does not include an explicit ban on federal funding for abortion:

Kennedy's comments do seem to ignore some crucial facts: Most importantly -- as Georgetown/On Faith blogger Thomas J. Reese points out -- U.S. Catholic bishops for decades have been at the forefront of the campaign for health-care reform. "The bishops are appalled that more than 46 million people do not have health insurance," Reese wrote.

Should Kennedy be appalled that they are threatening to pull their support over the issue of abortion? Not if he's been paying attention.

Kennedy made his comments in response to a question about an Oct. 8 letter the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops sent to Congress. In the letter, the bishops stated that they would "vigorously" oppose a final health care bill unless it were changed to include language that explicitly prohibits the use of taxpayer funds for abortions. According to the bishops, no current version of the health-care bill meets that standard.

"If final legislation does not meet our principles, we will have no choice but to oppose the bill," the bishops said in their letter.

Said Kennedy: "I can't understand for the life of me how the Catholic Church could be against the biggest social-justice issue of our time where the very dignity of the human person is being respected by the fact that we're caring and giving health care to the human person - that right now we have 50 million people who are uninsured. You mean to tell me the Catholic Church is going to be denying those people life-saving health care? I thought they were pro-life. If the church is pro-life, then they ought to be for health-care reform because it's going to provide health care that are going to keep people alive. So this is an absolute red herring, and I don't think that it does anything but to fan the flames of dissent and discord, and I don't think it's productive at all."

You can argue about whether Catholic bishops are putting too much emphasis on abortion in this case -- especially given the Administration's assurances that laws prohibiting federal funding of abortions will remain in place. No doubt some bishops have politicized the issue of abortion to the point of becoming partisan shills. But as a group, Catholic bishops have spoken out consistently and courageously for universal health care -- especially on behalf of the poor -- as a basic human right.

As Reese points out in his blog post, the bishops have been entirely consistent about their support for universal health care -- as long as it doesn't also include support for abortion.

The authors are right to note that the Catholic Church, so identified with hot-button issues like abortion, do not get credit for their work on behalf of the poor - on health care and other issues. And the Church could hardly be expected to brush aside concerns about abortion in the midst of the health care debate. It is a central concern and the Church's role, one could argue, is to champion its moral code even when that is an uncomfortable proposition.

But the piece makes only glancing reference to the central question here: does health care reform really allow for federal funding of abortion? It's a bit of a stretch to suggest that it does. But there is room for honest debate. Here, again, is an excerpt from a New York Times piece, printed last month, that I posted last week:

WASHINGTON — As if it were not complicated enough, the debate over health care in Congress is becoming a battlefield in the fight over abortion.

Abortion opponents in both the House and the Senate are seeking to block the millions of middle- and lower-income people who might receive federal insurance subsidies to help them buy health coverage from using the money on plans that cover abortion. And the abortion opponents are getting enough support from moderate Democrats that both sides say the outcome is too close to call. Opponents of abortion cite as precedent a 30-year-old ban on the use of taxpayer money to pay for elective abortions.

Abortion-rights supporters say such a restriction would all but eliminate from the marketplace private plans that cover the procedure, pushing women who have such coverage to give it up. Nearly half of those with employer-sponsored health plans now have policies that cover abortion, according to a study by the Kaiser Family Foundation.

The question looms as a test of President Obama’s campaign pledge to support abortion rights but seek middle ground with those who do not. Mr. Obama has promised for months that the health care overhaul would not provide federal money to pay for elective abortions, but White House officials have declined to spell out what he means.

Democratic Congressional leaders say the latest House and Senate health care bills preserve the spirit of the current ban on federal abortion financing by requiring insurers to segregate their public subsidies into separate accounts from individual premiums and co-payments. Insurers could use money only from private sources to pay for abortions.

But opponents say that is not good enough, because only a line on an insurers’ accounting ledger would divide the federal money from the payments for abortions. The subsidies would still help people afford health coverage that included abortion.

Kennedy has tangled with the Catholic Church before, with no great political harm resulting. And he will have plenty of support on this issue. Look for a piece in this week's Phoenix by Mary Ann Sorrentino, who beat up on Patrick Kennedy in her former role as a talk-radio host, backing the Congressman.

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