BY NANCY FRAZIER OʼBRIEN THE HOUSE OF Representatives has passed historic health reform legislation but rejected a last-ditch effort to send a package of legislative fixes back to committee in order to insert language on abortion supported by the US bishops.
The votes were 219-212 in favour of the Senate-passed health reform bill, and 232199 against a motion by Dave Camp, a Republican, to recommit the reconciliation package to committee with instructions to substitute language that would codify the Hyde amendment, which forbids federal funding of most abortions.
The vote on the reconciliation package, which concluded shortly before midnight, was 220-211.
Twenty-three Democrats joined all 178 House Republicans in opposing the measure.
On Tuesday the United States Bishops’ Conference issued a statement about the health reform bill, praising its efforts to extend healthcare to all people but criticising the bill’s lack of provisions against abortion.
The statement said: “Many elements of the health care reform measure signed into law by the president address these concerns and so help to fulfill the duty that we have to each other for the common good. We are bishops, and therefore pastors and teachers. In that role, we applaud the effort to expand health care to all.” The bishops added: “Nevertheless, for whatever good this law achieves or intends, we as Catholic bishops have opposed its passage because there is compelling evidence that it would expand the role of the federal government in fund ing and facilitating abortion and plans that cover abortion.” They said the bill appropriated billions of dollars of funding without explicitly prohibiting the use of the funds for abortion.
Sister Carol Keehan, a Daughter of Charity who is president of the Catholic Health Association, praised the legislation, saying it “represents great progress in the long effort to make health care available and affordable to everyone in the United States”. She urged the Senate to take quick action to pass the reconciliation package.
The House votes came only after Democrat Bart Stupak obtained a promise from the White House that President Barack Obama would sign an executive order stipulating that the Hyde amendment would apply to the health reform legislation.
Mr Stupak, a Catholic, had led a group of pro-life House Democrats in opposing the Senate health reform bill unless it were amended to include abortion language passed by the House last year. The bishops had backed those efforts, saying the Senatepassed bill’s abortion language was morally unacceptable because it contained “no relevant provision to prevent the direct use of federal funds for elective abortions”.
Joseph Pitts, a Republican, said the House language was needed in the Senate measure despite the promised executive order because “an executive order does not trump a statute”.
“The courts will look to the legislative statute to interpret the law,” he said.
In a memo to congressional staffers Richard Doerflinger, associate director of the US bishops’ Secretariat for ProLife Activities, said that “the statutory mandate construed by the courts would override any executive order or regulation”.
“This is the unanimous view of our legal advisers and of the experts we have consulted on abortion jurisprudence,” he said. “Only a change in the law enacted by Congress, not an executive order, can begin to address this very serious problem in the legislation.” In introducing his motion to send the bill back to committee, Mr Camp referred to the proposal to codify Hyde in the measure as the “Stupak-Pitts amendment”, but Mr Stupak spoke against it, saying it “purports to be a right-to-life amendment” but was actually an attempt to “politicise life”.
“This is nothing more than an opportunity to continue to deny 32 million Americans health insurance,” Mr Stupak said.
“It does not promote life. The executive order ensures that the sanctity of life will be protected.” The text of the draft executive order released by the White House said its goal was to “establish an adequate enforcement mechanism to ensure that federal funds are not used for abortion services (except in cases of rape or incest, or when the life of the woman would be endangered), consistent with a long-standing federal statutory restriction that is commonly known as the Hyde amendment”. “The purpose of this executive order is to establish a comprehensive, government-wide set of policies and procedures to achieve this goal and to make certain that all relevant actors – federal officials, state officials (including insurance regulators) and health care providers – are aware of their responsibilities, new and old.” White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer said Mr Obama had “said from the start that this health insurance reform should not be the forum to upset long-standing precedent”.
“The health care legislation and this executive order are consistent with this principle,” Mr Pfeiffer added.