Divisiveness Of Abortion Impedes Health Care Plan

NPR's Julie Rovner and Father Thomas Reese of Georgetown University's Woodstock Theological Center talk to Steve Inskeep about how abortion remains an obstacle to passing health care legislation. They also discuss the influence of Catholic bishops on the health care vote.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

We're looking more closely this morning at an obstacle to passing a health care bill. The obstacle is abortion. Lawmakers say they want to keep from changing the rules against federal funding for abortions, but they don't agree how to do that. We heard about this last week from our health policy correspondent Julie Rovner, who's with us once again. Hi, Julie.

JULIE ROVNER: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: And this story underlines the dilemma of a particular group of religious leaders: Catholic bishops. So we'll talk about that with Father Thomas Reese, who directs the Religion and Public Policy Program at Georgetown University's Woodstock Theology Center. He's in our studios. Welcome.

Father THOMAS REESE (Director, Public Policy Program, Woodstock Theological Center, Georgetown University): Thank you.

INSKEEP: What are the bishops so concerned about here?

Father REESE: Well, the bishops are concerned that there would be no money in the health care bill that goes to insurance plans or programs that have abortion as part of those programs.

INSKEEP: And let's remember, there's already in force what's called the Hyde Amendment, which basically says no federal funding for abortions. And the concern that is raised here is the fact that huge amounts of federal money is supposed to go for health care, for millions of more people who get subsidized, right?

Father REESE: Yeah. At the beginning of the health care debate, there was kind of a gentlemen's agreement. There had been the hope that abortion would not be re-debated during the health care debate and there was going to be a maintenance of the status quo. And then, as you mentioned, the argument became of: What is the status quo?

INSKEEP: But let me ask before I bring Julie Rovner into this conversation. Isn't health care itself one of the Catholic bishops' huge, longstanding, decades-old priorities?

Father REESE: Absolutely. I mean, before we were born, back in the '30s, the U.S. bishops were in favor of national health care. One of their priorities is that health care go to everyone, including undocumented workers - in other words, illegal aliens. They really want comprehensive and complete health care for every one in the country, but they don't want it to pay for abortion.

INSKEEP: Catholic bishops, of course, are just one group who lobby on this issue. And Julie Rovner, how intense has the fighting been over the precise language of how you word this health care bill on abortion?

ROVNER: It's been incredibly divisive. The intent going into this was that this bill be what's called abortion-neutral, so that the Hyde Amendment, as you mentioned - which has banned federal funding for abortion since 1977 - remain in place, so that there would be no direct federal funding of abortion.

INSKEEP: This is even pro-choice lawmakers saying: Look, we accept it. It's the way it is. We're not going to deal with it.

ROVNER: That's right, because they didn't want it to get in the way of moving this bill forward. The real issue became what would happen to people who were using their own money to buy health insurance within these federally chartered exchanges, the new market places. Because many, if not most, private insurance does cover abortion. So now there is going to be federal subsidies for private health plans that cover abortion. So if you've got federal money flowing into these private health plans, were people go into suddenly lose a benefit that they already had? And that's where the big fight came. And in the House bill -originally, there was a compromise, and then Bart Stupak...

INSKEEP: Leading pro-life lawmaker.

ROVNER: Leading pro-life member came in with an amendment and said: No private plan that got any money, any of these subsidizes, could offer abortion as a benefit.

INSKEEP: But why has it been so difficult to agree on language, given that all lawmakers, even pro-choice lawmakers, have said, you know, we don't want to change anything here. What makes this so hard?

ROVNER: Well, we got - we haven't gotten to the Senate bill. In the Senate bill, there was a compromise negotiated by Barbara Boxer, a leading pro-choice senator, and Ben Nelson, a leading pro-life senator, that basically said that you could still have abortion covered, but you would have to write two checks, and abortion could be covered with that money. The pro-choice groups hate this idea, but the pro-life groups hate it even more. So it's - it was a compromise that everybody - both sides hate. Now the National Right to Life Committee says that any House member who votes for the Senate health bill is casting a career defining pro-abortion vote. So when this Senate bill comes back to the House, the National Right to Life Committee says this is the most pro-abortion bill since Roe vs. Wade.

INSKEEP: Is this the most pro-abortion bill since Roe vs. Wade, Father Reese?

Father REESE: I think the problem we have here is that, frankly, both sides are quite paranoid on the issue and they don't trust each other. Nobody trusts anybody else's language. And frankly, we have a situation where the side that is most extreme who says that they will bring down the entire health care bill on this issue is probably the side that's going to win.

ROVNER: I think the father's absolutely right. People keep asking me: What does the language actually say? And there comes a point where it doesn't really matter what the language actually says. It only matters what the groups who keep score say that the language actually says.

INSKEEP: Because these are the groups that - for many voters, it's a short hand. This candidate is approved. This candidate is unacceptable.

ROVNER: That's exactly, precisely right. One of the big problems, though, is a procedural problem. At this point, the House must vote for the Senate bill, with its language as is. There will be a second bill, this so-called fix-it bill that has to go through the budget reconciliation process. There is precedent that you can't have abortion language in the budget reconciliation bill. So there might have to be a third bill. So actually getting to this is also a matter of trust - which, as we pointed out, neither side has in the other one right now.

INSKEEP: NPR's Julie Rovner, sounds like lots more work for you.

ROVNER: Lots more work for me.

INSKEEP: And Father Thomas Reese, thanks for coming by.

Father REESE: Thank you.

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