Religious Progressives Raise Concerns About Abortion in Healthcare Reform

Prominent religious progressives are voicing objections to abortion coverage in the "public option."

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By Dan Gilgoff, God & Country

Conservative Christians have spent weeks decrying Democratic plans for healthcare reform over allegations that the proposals will increase abortion coverage, but recent days have seen a different camp raising abortion-related concerns in the healthcare fight: left-leaning religious activists.

Progressive faith leaders and organizations are pushing hard for healthcare reform along the lines that President Obama has articulated, but some of the most prominent have grown concerned with the House healthcare bill's provisions for abortion coverage in the public health insurance plan.

They object to pooled premiums of those participating in the public plan going to abortion coverage for others in the plan, as laid out in the House healthcare bill. Americans who are opposed to abortion, the activists say, shouldn't be forced to pay for abortion procedures for others with their premiums.

Other faith-based liberals object to the House bill's authorization of the Department of Health and Human Services to decide which types of abortions are covered by the public option.

These religious activists, while opposed to much of the religious right's agenda, are pressuring the White House and Capitol Hill Democrats to revise the amendment to the House bill that deals with abortion, authored by California Rep. Lois Capps. One idea is to offer a second public option that excludes abortion coverage. Another is to offer a supplemental insurance rider for those who want abortion coverage.

"The Capps amendment successfully addresses the vast majority of concerns the moderate pro-life community has raised regarding conscience protections and abortion funding in healthcare reform," says Chris Korzen, executive director of the influential progressive group Catholics United. "The question of how to handle abortion coverage in the public option has proven more difficult to answer."

Stephen Schneck, a Catholic University of America professor who has advised the White House on Roman Catholic issues, is also urging Democrats to revise the House bill. "There needs to be more of a straightforward effort to defend the Hyde amendment," he says, referring to a decades-old law that prevents federal funds from going to abortions. "If we are stuck with the Capps amendment, we are going to have problems."

Conservative Christian activists have objected to Democratic healthcare reform proposals, and the Capps amendment specifically, on broader grounds. They oppose the very idea of a stepped-up government role in healthcare. And they say the Capps amendment's ban on federal funds for abortion in private health insurance plans receiving government assistance under the House bill is a "paper fiction."

Progressive religious activists, by contrast, generally favor a robust public option in healthcare reform and stand by the Capps amendment's ban on federal funds for abortion in the private plans.

But left-leaning activists are worried that without revising abortion provisions in the public option, the debate over abortion can bring down the whole healthcare reform effort. "As Catholics, we recognize that dramatically shifting the way we fund abortion is problematic not only for us, but also is the wrong way to go politically in terms of reaching consensus with pro-life members of Congress," says John Gehring, deputy communications director for the liberal group Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good. "It's definitely a sticking point, and it would be unfair to characterize it only as a conservative concern."

Progressive faith groups have been an important part of the Democratic coalition pushing for healthcare reform, making a moral case for the effort in the face of opposition from conservative religious activists and lending organizing muscle. Last month, President Obama joined a conference call with 140,000 religious Americans aimed at galvanizing support for healthcare reform.

Religious activists on the left say that the White House and some Hill Democrats are receptive to their abortion concerns. "We are hopeful that all sides in the abortion debate can find a common-ground solution to this particular challenge," says Catholics United's Korzen.

Many others on the left, however, are standing by the House healthcare bill's abortion provisions. The progressive think tank Third Way sent a memo to Congress last week arguing that the bill would reduce abortions by expanding the number of women who receive health insurance that covers contraception.

Aides to Representative Capps say her amendment expands options for antiabortion Americans by requiring at least one plan participating in a new government-controlled health insurance exchange to exclude abortion coverage. "About 90 percent of Americans participating in employer-based healthcare have a plan that offers elective abortion services," says Capps spokeswoman Emily Kryder. "The Capps amendment gives them more choice."

And the Capps amendment's defenders note that the public option may not be the least expensive plan in the government health insurance exchange, so that cost-conscious Americans wouldn't necessarily be forced into a plan that uses their premiums to pay for abortion. Many progressive religious groups want that guarantee in writing, in the reform of a revised House bill.

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