The nuns, the bishops and health care (continued)
In that column, I noted that while Cardinal Francis George, speaking for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, urged defeat of the health-care bill before the House because of flaws and loopholes in its abortion provisions, the Catholic Health Association had urged passage of the bill.
Sister Mary Ann specifically takes issue with Sister Carol Keehan, president and chief executive of the CHA, for saying that Cardinal George’s letter had misrepresented her organization’s position on the matter of whether the Senate bill provides any federal funding of abortion. I contacted Sister Carol this morning. She continues to believe that Cardinal George’s original letter mischaracterized her organization’s position. I think Sister Carol is right, and I stand by what I wrote. Because feelings are running very high right now, I’d like to take readers through the issues here.
Here is the relevant passage from my column:
Cardinal George acknowledged that the bishops' "analysis of the flaws in the legislation is not completely shared by the leaders of the Catholic Health Association." Then he said: "They believe, moreover, that the defects that they do recognize can be corrected after the passage of the final bill."
But Sister Carol, as she is known, said the latter assertion was flatly not true. "We're not saying that," she said. Her organization believes the bill as written guarantees that there will be no federal funding for abortion and does not need to be "corrected." Why the bishops would distort the position of the church's major health association is, to be charitable, a mystery.
Sister Mary Ann wrote, in part:
What must be known is that Cardinal George stated what Sister Carol herself said in a March 11 letter from CHA to the House of Representatives. In it, she wrote that CHA "believes the Senate legislation should be amended through a 'corrections' bill to address the following issues." Sister Carol listed five points, the last of which reads, "The bill should ensure that the final, overall health reform package will provide no federal funding for abortion."
Mr. Dionne, who also accused the bishops of misrepresenting Sister Carol, wrote that her organization believes the bill does not fund abortion as it is currently written and therefore "does not need to be corrected."
Cardinal George's statement reflected the March 11 letter from Sister Carol. To suggest otherwise now is puzzling at best. The U.S. bishops have not misrepresented CHA's stated position.
By implication (and perhaps inadvertently), Sister Mary Ann’s follow-up letter to The Post, has the same effect as Cardinal George’s original letter: It suggests that the CHA believes that the Senate bill’s abortion language needs to be corrected. But Sister Carol has repeatedly made it very clear that neither she nor her organization believes this. She insists that the Senate language does not provide federal funding for abortion.
Here is the key passage in Cardinal George’s letter:
What bothers Sister Carol, as she told me this morning, is the implication that the CHA would be willing to buy “a pig in a poke” and accept any abortion funding in a health-care bill. She has made very clear that this is not her position or that of her organization.
This analysis of the flaws in the legislation is not completely shared by the leaders of the Catholic Health Association. They believe, moreover, that the defects that they do recognize can be corrected after the passage of the final bill. The bishops, however, judge that the flaws are so fundamental that they vitiate the good that the bill intends to promote. Assurances that the moral objections to the legislation can be met only after the bill is passed seem a little like asking us, in Midwestern parlance, to buy a pig in a poke.
Sister Mary Ann’s quotations from the Catholic Health Association’s March 11 letter are accurate. (I include links in this post to the relevant documents so readers can see them in full.) A CHA spokesman said that one of the statements she cites -- "The bill should ensure that the final, overall health reform package will provide no federal funding for abortion" -- was not a call for changes in the bill. Rather, it was aimed at insisting that any final bill maintain the ban on federal funding of abortion that the CHA believes is already included in the Senate bill.
I have read the CHA’s March 11 letter over many times now, and there is a certain ambiguity in its language -- though no ambiguity in Sister Carol’s other public statements. The sentence in the letter on abortion was included in a set of bullet points that followed a statement saying that CHA believed that “the Senate legislation should be amended through a ‘corrections’ bill to address the following issues.” This, a CHA spokesman explained, was a reference to the reconciliation bill that was still being written at the time the CHA letter was issued. While three of the five bullet points in that section referred to specific changes the CHA was seeking in the Senate bill – all of them related to expanding coverage and not to abortion -- the reference to abortion was simply a flat statement and did not call for any changes in the bill. I think it's an important difference and it supports what Sister Carol has been saying.
One can certainly argue that CHA’s letter would have been clearer if the statement on abortion had been included elsewhere in the text. But I think Cardinal George’s letter took those ambiguities to suggest that CHA holds a view that it, in fact, does not. (While I’m suggesting edits to other people’s letters, if the Cardinal had just said the CHA had differences with the Bishops and left it at that, we wouldn’t be having this particular controversy.) For her part, Sister Carol said this morning that Cardinal George or someone from the Bishops’ conference could easily have contacted her to clarify any ambiguities in the letter. “I wish they had called us,” she said. “If they didn’t understand the statement, or if they thought we were buying ‘a pig in a poke,’ it would have been helpful if they had called me.” I think they should have called her, too.
Why does any of this matter? It matters to me because I try very hard to be accurate in what I write and believe I owe an accounting to readers when my accuracy is questioned. I believe I was accurate in this case. I also believed Sister Carol, whose courage on this issue I greatly admire, deserved a chance to reply to Sister Mary Ann’s letter.
But these issues are secondary to the larger question here. Catholics are divided over the health-care bill. I believe passionately, as does Sister Carol, that it would be an enormous mistake to miss this opportunity to extend health coverage to more than 30 million Americans. I also share her view that the Senate bill, as written, does not provide for Federal funding of abortion. Cardinal George and the Catholic Bishops Conference believe just as passionately that the bill is not clear enough on the abortion question and should therefore be opposed. As a Catholic, I am deeply disappointed that the Bishops have taken this position, and I disagree with their reading of the bill, even as I also think that they are acting from good will and sincere belief. I hope that this afternoon's talk of an executive order to satisfy the concerns of abortion's opponents will allow those who believe in the cause of life to find a way of supporting this health care expansion because it will reduce the number of abortions in our country while also preserving and enhancing lives.
I’d like to offer the last word to my former Washington Post colleague T. R. Reid. In his excellent book, The Healing of America: A Global Quest for Better, Cheaper, and Fairer Health Care, he wrote:
Those Americans who die or go broke because they happened to get sick represent a fundamental moral decision our country has made. Despite all the rights and privileges and entitlements that Americans enjoy today, we have never decided to provide medical care for everybody who needs it. In the world’s richest nation, we tolerate a health-care system that leads to large numbers of avoidable deaths and bankruptcies among our fellow citizens…
All the other developed countries on earth have made a different moral decision. All the other countries like us—that is, wealthy, technologically advanced, industrialized democracies—guarantee medical care to anyone who gets sick. Countries that are just as committed as we are to equal opportunity, individual liberty, and the free market have concluded that everybody has a right to health care—and they provide it.
We should, too. And I think we will.
| March 20, 2010; 4:26 PM ET
Categories: Dionne | Tags: E.J. Dionne
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