Steven Waldman

Steven Waldman

Why The Catholic Bishops Matter on Health Care Reform

posted by swaldman

In response to some recent posts about the Catholic Bishops position on abortion and health care, some have chided me for caring too much about what the Bishops think. After all, there’s plenty of evidence that Catholics don’t follow the Bishops on a wide variety of political or social issues, from abortion to contraception to the Iraq war.
But I believe Bishops matter a great deal politically when it comes to the abortion-and-health care debate.
1) They want health care reform to pass. Most pro-life groups are either opposed to Democratic-style universal health care plans (e.g. Family Research Council) or neutral (Right to Life Committee). The Catholic Bishops are the only major pro-life group that wants health care reform. As a result, they have no interest in using the abortion issue to block health care. So when they raise objections about abortion provisions, members of congress may perceive them to be substantively rather than politically motivated.
2) They may influence pro-life Democrats. Pro-life Republicans are unlikely to support health care reform even if the legislation was perfect, from their perspective, on abortion. The more important group is pro-life Democrats, who may be on the fence on health care reform, or lean in favor, but have expressed unwillingness to support it if legislation subsdizes abortion. Even those pro-life Democrats who aren’t Catholic can look at the Bishops as kindred spirits, since they too want to both oppose abortion aid and support health care reform. A reminder: about one quarter of Obama’s coalition came from pro-life voters.
3) The Bishops give Democrats political cover. The question of abortion and health care is complicated. Some of the issues reside in gray zones, where both pro-life and pro-choice groups can make plausible claims. If the Bishops support the health care package, Democrats and moderate Republicans would have a simple, jargon-free, non-technical response to charges that the plan encourages abortion: “Would the Catholic Bishops really have supported this if it encouraged abortion?”
4) The Catholic vote matters. If Obama hadn’t made huge inroads among Catholics, he would not have won the 2008 election. A reminder: in 2004, George W. Bush beat John Kerry 52%-47% among Catholics. Obama beat McCain among Catholics 53%-45%, a stunning 13 point shift. He even improved among regular churchgoing Catholics. I have no illusions that the Bishops either can cause or prevent such shifts among Catholic voters. But given the importance of that vote, from the Democratic perspective, it’s better to have the Bishops on board than to not have them.
My usual disclaimer: I’m not commenting on the substance of abortion policy, just the political realities.

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Gerard Nadal

posted September 18, 2009 at 7:12 am

“4) The Catholic vote matters.” AND ” I have no illusions that the Bishops either can cause or prevent such shifts among Catholic voters. But given the importance of that vote, from the Democratic perspective, it’s better to have the Bishops on board than to not have them.”
Which amounts to what we already know. There is no ‘Catholic vote’. Catholic voting practices are really pretty heterogeneous.
When it comes to moral issues such as birth control and abortion, Catholics pretty much do as they wish. Few follow the Magisterium out of obedience to the authority of the Bishops. On matters such as the health care debate, the Bishops will not sway Catholic voters. Those inclined to agree will cite the Bishops. Those inclined to disagree, will proceed apace without them.
Touching on the semantics of anti-abortion vs. pro-life, the health care debate throws these two concepts into sharp relief, and highlights both the strengths and weaknesses of the American Bishops.
While much is made over the language of health care reform legislation not funding abortion, or mandating an abrogation of conscience clauses for physicians opposed to performing abortions (anti-abortion), there remains the far deadlier prospect of rationing health care down the road (pro-life).
The Bishops take a principled position on the affordability of health care for all persons. That is just and noble. They demonstrate their strength as a body when they do so.
But the same Federal government that just froze social security benefits for two years (an effective cut), has proven repeatedly that when it comes to social security and medicare, they are poor stewards of the people’s money and security. These two programs are on the verge of collapse. Nothing has been done to strengthen them, while the Federal debt has quadrupled under this president in only six months. How will that debt affect social security and medicare? Then comes a single-payer system under federal control?
The writing is on the wall.
Awash in debt it can not repay, the government will not be able to extend expensive therapies to all. Priorities will need to be drawn. Decisions will have to be made. People will be euthanized, if not actively, then passively through denial of services. Here is the greater threat that the Bishops’ utopian vision does not address.
No amount of assurances to the contrary from the government can prevent rationing under a single payer system. No amount of utopian good will from the Bishops can assuage people of their well-founded fears of such a system. Supporters of such a system will footnote the Bishops’ approval. That’s all it will amount to.
When the rationing is in full flower, the Bishops’ support for the system will be trotted out when they begin to object. Then they will have lost the last shred of moral credibility. They will rightly be ignored for being completely detached from reality.
The Bishops need to be less anti-abortion here and more pro-life.

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posted September 18, 2009 at 9:35 am

I am glad to see you posting more lately – I hope it means your family has recovered somewhat from all your recent troubles.
You raise several points which need to be addressed.
My perspective on these matters is colored by having lived in Europe for many many decades so, obviously, I’m approaching this from the knowledge that universal health care works. Americans have had a horribly bad system for so long, and are so disinclined to credit the results in other countries, I understand your reservations as arising from a cultural basis.
Your primary concern is health care rationing. A serious concern, a genuine concern. One we need to address, directly. I would like to see clear language in the pending legislation addressing this and a comment on it from the Supreme Court, prior to passage.
Of course, I would also like for summer to last until December 24, when it should snow eight inches overnight…
Personally, I think the rationing we are seeing at the moment with 45,000 people (at least, that figure is statistically grounded) dying every year in the US because the have no health insurance available to them (too expensive, they are not poor enough, pre-existing conditions) is a greater sin than any potential limitations we may or may not see later. We haven’t seen them in Europe or Canada, the cluster f*ck which is the UK health programme is even better at this than the US system.
Social security reserve funds were plundered by Bush#43. This is incontrovertible fact. The truth is, however, that the Social Security payments will not cease. If the government has to print the money to pay out entitlements, it must and shall. It is proper for pundits to raise concerns about the program. It is irresponsible of them to tell lies to us.
As regards Medicare, I don’t know the exact funding basis, can’t, however, see any government, conservative or liberal risking the ire of that block of people who always vote and always vote their own interests: Old people.

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Gerard Nadal

posted September 18, 2009 at 10:48 am

Hey Panthera,
I’m late for a full day of appointments. Good to see you too. I’ve been thinking about you and hoping all is well with you and your husband. I’ll respond to the substance of your response, but it won’t be until late tonight. See ya!

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posted September 18, 2009 at 8:58 pm

As a wavering but still pro-life Catholic, I’m very concerned about how some pro-life and more conservative Catholic groups have approached the health reform question.
I think that the bishops, among others, are not able to rein in the pro-life activist Catholic clergy and laity that constantly sabotage any chance of political cooperation between Catholics and Congress. The bishops have not encouraged all Catholics to engage constructively in politics regardless of who’s got control of Capitol Hill. Rather than vilifying President Obama or his party, maybe certain Catholics should endeavor for an equitable and moral conclusion about health care. \
There may never be a way to create a national health plan that is “abortion neutral”. In the end, Catholics might not be able to endorse any plan. Catholics should never give up their fundamental moral principles to gain health benefits. However, I think that Catholics have a social justice obligation to further a moral, pro-life health reform no matter what the stakes.
For this Catholic, the pro-life conviction encompasses much more than being anti-abortion. Pro-life includes providing for the dignity of post-natal persons. That dignity includes reasonably-priced health insurance that does not discriminate or deny policy holders critical care. Think of all the great things Catholics could do if we put aside bickering over which politicians should receive Communion and advocate for the dignity of the unborn and those who live in this world.

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posted September 20, 2009 at 1:45 pm

I am more than slightly puzzled by the attitude of so many conservative Bishops and other Catholics towards health care reform.
Distilled to their essence, the arguments they bring forth against health care reform might equally well be applied to building new streets which happen to be laid past hospitals in which abortions are performed. Or universities which teach any of the natural sciences to undergraduates – a certain small number of which will, eventually, go on to become doctors who perform abortions.
Or to any utilities company, after all their electricity, gas or telecommunications will also be used by those seeking or granting or performing abortions.
We have reached the point in the US at which those who oppose the two culture war issues of human status for gays and freedom of choice for women now oppose all initiatives for the public good which are advocated or advanced by anyone to the left of Genghis Kahn…

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