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The president is also likely to be judged on whether he can successfully overhaul health care. That emotional and divisive debate becomes even more so because of abortion. Opponents of abortion say they will try to block the House bill from reaching the floor for a vote if the current language on abortion is not made more restrictive. In the middle of this battle is the Catholic Church. It strongly opposes abortion but it also strongly supports a health overhaul. NPR's Julie Rovner reports.
JULIE ROVNER: The desire to make health care a basic human right is hardly a new position for the Catholic Church.
Mr. RICHARD DOERFLINGER (U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops): I think in our files we have a letter from the bishops to Harry Truman urging comprehensive health care reform.
ROVNER: Richard Doerflinger is with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. At the same time, he points out, the church doesn't just advocate for health care, it's also one of the nation's major providers of health care.
Mr. DOERFLINGER: Our Catholic charities and Catholic hospital outlets take care of millions of people. I think it's been estimated that one-sixth of the people who go into a hospital every year are going into a Catholic hospital.
ROVNER: But so far the church hasn't been able to support either the House or Senate versions of the health overhaul bills now being readied for floor vote because of their abortion language, Doerflinger says.
Mr. DOERFLINGER: We want health care reform very, very much, but we cannot do that over children's dead bodies, to put it most bluntly. But there is a fundamental issue here about whether taking life should be treated the same way as supporting and healing life.
ROVNER: But abortion rights supporters say the bills don't actually expand access to abortion � and they wish it would. Nancy Northup is president of the Center for Reproductive Rights.
Ms. NANCY NORTHUP (Center for Reproductive Rights): This is not at all what the reproductive rights movement had hoped for in health care reform, and it's not a win for women. It's a compromise.
ROVNER: Originally, says Northup, she and other pro-choice leaders wanted to see abortion covered like any other women's health service.
Ms. NORHTUP: About one in three women in the United States has an abortion in her lifetime, and it should be a part of her reproductive health care.
ROVNER: But it was quickly clear that wasn't going to happen. What lawmakers decided instead was to try to craft what they called abortion-neutral language. In other words, to try to freeze in place the status quo. Currently, the federal government doesn't pay for abortion in most cases, but many, if not most, private insurance plans do.
Abortion foes, however, say the language included in the bills is not neutral and favors the abortion rights side.
Douglas Johnson is federal legislative director for the National Right to Life Committee. His side has two big problems. He says the new government-run public plan could end up offering abortion as a benefit, and that the federal government would provide subsidies to private insurance plans that pay for abortion.
Mr. DOUGLAS JOHNSON (National Right to Life Committee): Both of these things would be sharp departures from decades of federal abortion policy, and so we want to apply the long-standing principles of federal law to these new programs, which would mean that the monies could not be used to support elective abortions or coverage for elective abortion.
ROVNER: Backers of the language currently in the bills say Johnson is overstating the case, that the federal government would be prohibited from directly funding abortion and that money for private insurance subsidies would have to be kept separate if it's going to be used to cover abortion.
But while that debate rages on Capitol Hill, another quieter debate is taking place within the Catholic Church. That's where Jon O'Brien, president of the group Catholics for Choice, says not everyone agrees with the hard line on abortion being taken by the bishops.
Mr. JON O'BRIEN (Catholics for Choice): American Catholics, as you know the polls show time and time again, disagree with the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops on the abortion issue. And they believe in reproductive health care and see reproductive health care as a responsible part of health care.
ROVNER: O'Brien says most American Catholics see health overhaul as part of the church's social justice agenda regardless of the abortion language in the bills.
And it's not just abortion; the Catholic Church also wants a health overhaul bill to ensure access to health care for everyone in the country, including illegal immigrants. That's going to be another uphill fight.
Julie Rovner, NPR News, Washington.
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