Catholics Torn On Health Care Abortion Language

The Catholic bishops have lobbied hard to get Catholic members of Congress to oppose the current health care bill because of language it says could allow some federal funding of abortion. The Catholic hospital group differs on the interpretation of the abortion language and the relative importance of the rest of the bill.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

The health care battle has prompted debate that we mentioned among many U.S. Catholics over whether the legislation would open a door to federal funding for abortions. That's currently banned. The issue has been difficult for some Democrats who have long fought for expanding health care but who also oppose abortion. Among them is a 14-term representative, Marcy Kaptur of Toledo, Ohio. Representative Kaptur is a Roman Catholic, as is much of her district. NPR's Don Gonyea spoke to some of her constituents.

DON GONYEA: There have been mixed signals for Catholics in the last week alone over the health care bill. The U.S. Conference of Bishops opposed the bill, warning it could lead to federal funds being used for abortion. But then the group representing the nation's Catholic hospitals disagreed, while also pointing to the benefits of expanding coverage.

In Toledo, Joe Churchill runs a Catholic bookstore bearing his family's name. He says he voted Republican in the last three presidential elections, but he also likes and voted for Democrat Marcy Kaptur. On health care he's a strong opponent of abortion, and the bill. But still he finds the issue confusing. As for Kaptur's decision...

Mr. JOE CHURCHILL (Catholic Bookstore Owner): Yeah, that's got to be terribly tough for her. Gut-wrenching is definitely a good word. With the loss of so many jobs due to company closures, it's scary. I mean you get to be in your even start of late 30s going into your 40s and all of a sudden you dont have health care, I mean that's real scary.

GONYEA: Still, Churchill says he worries about the bill's price tag and hopes it is defeated. At United Autoworkers Local 12 in Toledo, 63-year-old Charlene Thomas is paying a midday visit to her sister, who's a secretary there.

Ms. CHARLENE THOMAS (Secretary): I just happen to be at St. Vincent's Hospital, so I thought, oh, it's just right around the corner. Ill swing over and see Mary Jo.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GONYEA: Both are proud Democrats and Obama supporters. As for abortion...

Ms. THOMAS: Being Catholic, it's always been abortion is not allowed, and I have been raised this way and I believe this.

GONYEA: But for Thomas, the decision on whether to back the health care bill is not a difficult one.

Ms. THOMAS: We need to do something for our citizens that have no insurance.

(Soundbite of church bells)

GONYEA: Those bells are in the medieval Spanish towers of the Most Holy Rosary Cathedral. This is the mother church for the entire Catholic diocese of Toledo. Father Charles Singler is the rector. He reiterates that while different Catholic groups may have different opinions on the health care bill, the bishop's statement in opposition is the church's official position. And he says opposing the bill doesnt diminish the church's long-time advocacy of social justice and opportunity for the poor. But he says the questions about the abortion language are serious.

Father CHARLES SINGLER (Our Lady Queen of The Most Holy Rosary Cathedral): That's where the issue comes. That's why the church speaks out then to say there are some things that have to be worked out with regard to this health care reform.

GONYEA: By the end of the weekend, Democrats in the U.S. House, who've been struggling with how they'll vote on health care because of the abortion issue, will have made a decision, one that theyll then have to explain and defend in their districts.

Don Gonyea, NPR News, Toledo.

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