Catholic social teaching, as the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has tirelessly reminded our elected officials, has long regarded access to decent health care to be a basic human right, not just the privilege of the wealthy or those lucky enough to be employed.
"It is a fundamental issue of human life and dignity," Bishop William F. Murphy, chair of the bishops' Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, wrote to Congress in July. Murphy urged lawmakers to pass a health-care reform bill that extends medical coverage to all Americans, regardless of ability to pay. At the same time, Murphy reminded Congress that the church would oppose any bill that allowed taxpayer money to pay for abortions.
President Barack Obama has repeatedly promised that health-care reform will be "abortion neutral," but as with many other aspects of the health-care effort, he has left the details up to Congress. Currently, the Hyde Amendment prohibits the use of federal money to pay for abortions, except in cases of rape or incest, or when the mother's life is in danger. Yet how this policy can be extended to private health-insurance plans that might receive government subsidies to cover those now uninsured, or to a government-run health plan (the so-called public option) in a nation where access to abortion is a constitutional right, is far from clear. Abortion opponents say they will not tolerate direct government subsidies to insurance plans that cover abortion. Much will depend on how the word "direct" is interpreted. (Millions of Americans, many of them prolife, currently "subsidize" abortion through the premiums they pay to private health-insurance companies that do cover the procedure.) At the same time, abortion-rights advocates will not support a bill that takes away coverage from those whose insurance now provides for the procedure.
This is a Gordian knot that cannot be cut without painstaking legislative and political work. Some measure of good will is needed from those on both sides of the conflict, for there is a larger good at stake here. It would be a great tragedy for the nation, and a calamity for the tens of millions of uninsured and inadequately insured Americans, if it proved impossible to bracket the abortion stalemate in order to bring basic medical services to all Americans. …