Cracks appear in abortion front against healthcare reform

The coalition of Catholics and anti-abortion advocates that has opposed healthcare reform – saying it could allow federal funds for abortion – is slowly splintering.

Harry Hamburg/AP
Rep. Charlie Wilson (D) of Ohio talks with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi during a news conference on Capitol Hill Tuesday. Mr. Wilson, an anti-abortion Catholic, has hinted that he is leaning toward supporting the healthcare reform bill.

A widening split among opponents of abortion could help pave the way to passage for President Obama’s healthcare reform legislation.

Increasingly, abortion foes – including high-profile Catholic organizations and members of Congress – are saying that while the language aimed at preventing use of federal funds for abortion is not perfect, the bill is still worth passing as a first step.

The Catholic Health Association, which represents more than 600 Catholic hospitals in the US, came out earlier this week in favor of the president’s plan, arguing that comprehensive reform is a “moral imperative.” On Wednesday, 60 Catholic nuns representing most of the nation’s 59,000 nuns sent a letter to Congress, also urging passage of the bill.

The one-two punch represents an extraordinary display of dissent against the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, the official leadership of the US church, which favors universal healthcare but opposes the president’s plan over the abortion issue.

Congressmen break ranks

In addition, some Catholic Democrats in Congress who oppose abortion have begun to peel away and signal either definite or likely support for the president’s plan, which is the Senate-passed version, plus fixes (none of them abortion-related).

“At this point, I’m confident the Senate language upholds my pro-life values,” said Rep. Charlie Wilson (D) of Ohio on a conference call Thursday.

Congressman Wilson, who is Catholic, added that he needed to review the final version of the bill, which was released Thursday afternoon, but seemed headed toward “yes.” In his remarks, Wilson cited the thousands of Americans who die every year without healthcare. “We must value these lives as well,” he said.

On Wednesday, Rep. Dale Kildee (D) of Michigan, another Catholic abortion opponent, announced he would vote “yes” on the Senate plan.

Staunch opponents hold firm

Opponents of abortion rights have been running ads in the districts of members like Wilson and Congressman Kildee, trying to persuade them to vote against healthcare reform. They are now expanding their campaign.

The group Americans United for Life Action (AUL) has devoted more than $350,000 to the campaign. Despite signs that Obama’s campaign to pass reform has momentum, AUL president Charmaine Yoest says she still doesn’t see how House speaker Nancy Pelosi gets the 216 votes she needs to pass the bill.

“This is tight enough that she’s really got to get every person she needs to get this over the finish line,” says Ms. Yoest.

The defection of Kildee was especially tough for Rep. Bart Stupak (D) of Michigan, the author of an amendment to the House version of reform that abortion-rights supporters said would have further hindered access to the procedure.

Congressman Stupak has been saying that he has a dozen House members willing to vote against the Senate version of reform, effectively killing it. But Democratic leaders have been wooing them hard, zeroing in on the elements of the bill they support.

Stupak himself says he has suffered for his advocacy, calling his life a “living hell” in an interview with The Hill newspaper. “People saying they’re going to spit on you and all this,” he says. “That’s just not fun.”

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.