While the U.S. Senate appears poised to finally pass a health care reform bill before Christmas, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops remains opposed to the Senate version on the ground that its limits on abortion funding do not go far enough. According to statements issued last Friday and Saturday by the Bishops, the Manager's Amendment (full text) to H.R. 3590 "does not seem to allow purchasers who exercise freedom of choice or of conscience to 'opt out' of abortion coverage in federally subsidized health plans that include such coverage. Instead it will require purchasers of such plans to pay a distinct fee or surcharge which is extracted solely to help pay for other people's abortions." The Bishops stressed that their criteria for acceptable health care reform includes three moral criteria: "respect for life and conscience; affordability for the poor; and access to much-needed basic health care for immigrants." According to The Boston Pilot yesterday, the Bishops applauded amendments that expanded adoption tax credits and assistance for pregnant women, but the abortion language apparently remains the block to obtaining their support.
At issue is nine pages of language (pp. 38-46 of Manager's Amendment) on how abortion coverage will be handled. It provides (1) any state may elect to bar abortion coverage in policies offered through the Exchange in that state; (2) elsewhere each insurance company may decide whether or not its plans will cover abortion services; (3) if a plan does cover abortions, no federal subsidy may be used to pay for that coverage; (4) instead the insurer must collect a separate payment from the insured for that coverage and segregate those funds for use for abortion services.
The Bishops' concern seems to be that under this arrangement, abortion coverage will still be in some policies that receive government subsidies, so long as a separate check is written for the part of the premium applicable to that coverage. Instead, according to a Dec. 14 letter from the Bishops, they want language in the House bill that was proposed as an amendment by Sen. Ben Nelson, but was defeated by the Senate. That language provides that no federal funds could be used "to cover any part of the costs of any health plan that includes abortion coverage." After that loss, Sen. Nelson negotiated the language in the Manager's Amendment and according to AP argued that the differences were "about a staple." By that he means that the disagreement is over whether abortion coverage-- which would be paid for separately in either case-- would be a part of the subsidized policy (not acceptable to the Bishops) or in a separate rider stapled to it (acceptable to the Bishops).
As an aside, the U.S. is not the only country struggling with the abortion issue. Interfax reported yesterday that Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has signed amendments to the country's Federal Advertising Law banning the advertising of abortions in a wide variety of media and locations. Many of the restrictions seem to be aimed at preventing advertising of abortions to minors.