McCaskill's broken promise: A Catholic perspective

Sunday, December 20, 2009

By Mike Hoey

The U.S. Catholic bishops are longtime supporters of ensuring that all Americans -- especially the poor -- have access to affordable health care. Earlier this decade, for example, the Missouri bishops vigorously opposed the massive cuts to Medicaid that left thousands of Missourians without health coverage.

The bishops have consistently maintained that abortion is not health care but the taking of innocent unborn life. Unfortunately, the current effort to expand health care is being imperiled by U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill and like-minded senators who support federally funded abortion in health care reform.

Most Americans -- 61 percent according to a recent CNN/Opinion Research poll -- are opposed to using public funds for abortions. In a town-hall meeting in Hillsboro, Mo., on Aug. 11, Sen. McCaskill pledged: "I will not vote for a bill that changes the federal law in terms of funding abortion." On Aug. 24, in a Moberly, Mo., town hall meeting, she assured her audience that "there is absolutely not one word in this bill that would allow one dime of federal money to be spent on abortion." Perhaps the senator had misread the bill, but it clearly included federal support for abortion and abortion insurance coverage.

On Dec. 8 McCaskill had an opportunity to end all doubt that she opposed taxpayer support for abortion. On that date, U.S. Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) and U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) offered an amendment to ensure that health care reform would comply with longstanding federal policy. That policy bars the use of public funds for abortions except in cases of rape, incest or threats to the life of the mother. It also prohibits paying the administrative expenses for any health plan that covers elective abortions.

These abortion restrictions apply to a number of programs including Medicaid appropriations, the Indian Health Services program and the health benefits available to the 8 million federal employees. Instead of voting to have the new health care reform program comply with current federal law on abortion, as she had pledged to do in Hillsboro, McCaskill voted to table consideration of the Nelson-Hatch amendment.

McCaskill claims the Nelson-Hatch amendment would prohibit individuals from purchasing abortion coverage with their own money. This claim is false. Under the amendment, those individuals who receive federal subsidies could purchase coverage for elective abortions through a separate, supplemental policy, while those who do not receive subsidies could buy abortion coverage as part of their basic insurance plan.

The amendment would not interfere with the ability of insurance companies to sell coverage for elective abortions to anyone willing to pay for it with their own money. The Nelson-Hatch amendment merely protects the conscience rights of Americans who do not want to be forced by the government to pay for abortions through their tax dollars or health insurance premiums.

Critics of the Nelson-Hatch amendment claim that while in theory insurance companies will be permitted to sell elective abortion coverage, in practice they will not because it will be too cumbersome. This claim is also false. In Missouri, for example, a 1983 state law already requires that abortion coverage only be provided through an optional and separate supplemental policy paid for by an additional premium. This law has not prevented insurers from offering elective abortion coverage. Boeing's union and non-union employees in St. Louis, for example, have elective abortion coverage.

There is still time -- though it is short -- for Sen. McCaskill to reverse her position and keep federally funded abortions out of health care reform. The Nelson-Hatch amendment could resurface, or the Senate could be presented with a House version of health care reform that contains a similar provision. One can only hope that in the end the senator will respect the deeply held moral convictions of the majority of her constituents.

Mike Hoey of Jefferson City, Mo., is the interim director of the Missouri Catholic Conference.

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