Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Mother Jones: The Man Who Almost Killed Health Reform

Rep. Bart Stupak, while sincerely committed to the pro-life position, was sincerely determined to see health reform pass. In the case of Richard Doerflinger, a senior analyst with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and a key architect of their anti-abortion campaign, the commitment to health reform is much less clear, as Mother Jones magazine reports. An excerpt:

Like many other Catholic groups, the bishops have long advocated for universal health care. But as abortion moved to the forefront of the health care debate, a schism occurred. As the health care bill neared a vote in the House last November, Stupak claimed that by providing tax credits to help people buy insurance, the legislation would result in government money being used to pay for abortions. With Doerflinger’s help, he drafted an amendment that required women to purchase a separate "rider" policy with their own money if they wanted abortion coverage. When the action shifted to the Senate, Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) inserted slightly different anti-abortion language requiring women who receive tax credits to cut a separate check to pay for the part of their insurance policy that would cover abortion. Many Catholic groups who favored health care reform decided that the Senate anti-abortion provisions were acceptable. By late March, Catholic nuns, the Catholic Health Association, and many individual pro-life faith leaders had admitted publicly that the Senate bill would not fund abortion, and expressed support for the Democrats' plan.

But the bishops wouldn't budge. Doerflinger insisted that the Senate bill would still lead to federal financing of abortion, and that only the House version would do. Soon, the ostensibly pro-reform bishops had joined forces with a coalition of conservative groups who had no desire to see a health care bill pass. These included Focus on the Family and the National Right to Life Committee (NRLC), which attacked the Democrats' plan as "death care" and warned that it would lead to the "rationing" of medical treatment.

Before long, liberal Catholics were questioning the motives of Doerflinger and the bishops in aligning themselves with these right-wing groups. In mid-March, the National Catholic Reporter slammed the bishops for embracing a "red herring" argument served up by the NRLC that the Senate bill would allow community health centers to fund abortions. In fact, community health care centers have never performed abortions and there was no plan for them to do so in future. "The bishops have to be clear that some of their talking points might lead honest observers to question their competence—or worse," the National Catholic Reporter concluded. (Doerflinger declined to respond to follow-up questions regarding the community health centers issue.)


Stupak pushed Doerflinger's position almost until the very end. On March 17, he told Fox News that he didn’t listen to nuns when drafting pro-life language, and instead relied on "leading bishops, Focus on the Family, and The National Right to Life Committee." But four days later, on the day of the final vote, he abruptly changed course. Over the bishops' objections, he accepted the White House’s compromise: an executive order reiterating that no government money would be used to pay for abortions.

In the days since Stupak voted for the bill, relations between his bloc and the bishops have soured. "The church does have some work to do in dealing with frayed nerves and divisions on policy questions," Doerflinger told Catholic News Service. Last week, Stupak attacked the bishops and other anti-abortion groups for "great hypocrisy" in opposing Obama's executive order after having supported former President George W. Bush's executive order banning stem cell research in 2007. He told the Daily Caller he believed the bishops and the groups they were allied with were "just using the life issue to try to bring down health-care reform." In other words, he suspected he was wrong to trust that his former allies were acting in good faith.

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