On health care, Bishops forfeit high ground
The American Roman Catholic Bishops' efforts to scale back women's abortion rights threaten to harm the poor and underinsured, writes guest columnist Sam R. Sperry. "This political stance in the name of moral principal is just the opposite."
Special to The Times
THE American Roman Catholic Bishops stubborn insistence on scaling back women's abortion rights in pending health-care-reform legislation demonstrates their willingness to "toss off the bridge" millions of people who would benefit.
This political stance in the name of moral principal is just the opposite. There is no moral righteousness in denying affordable health-care coverage to the millions of uninsured and underinsured citizens for the sake of further restricting coverage for a woman's reproductive health.
But the Catholic bishops are willing to abort health-care reform because they insist Congress disallow any publicly funded or subsidized private health-insurance plan that may help finance a woman's decision to choose an abortion.
The health-care-reform bill passed by the House of Representatives contains the contentious Stupak Amendment, which would ban insurance companies that participate in a new health-insurance exchange from offering abortion coverage. The "exchange" would be a new way people and businesses could buy health-care insurance: a kind of market or catalog wherein they could comparison shop for coverage. [The Senate this week declined to consider such an amendment.]
The legal consequence of Stupak is obvious: Federal law allows public funding for cases wherein an abortion is sought due to rape, incest or the health of the mother. Thus, the House bill with the Stupak Amendment adds new restrictions.
The philosophical and moral aspects of the bishops' political stance are not universally accepted. Nor do they rest on as solid a basis as they might want us to believe.
First, the bishops' position reflects the church's questionable doctrine that human life begins at the moment of conception. Not only is this not demonstrable biologically. There also is no consensus among traditional Roman Catholic authorities on the point, including the venerable St. Thomas Aquinas, the foundational 13th-century scholar of the Catholic Church. When first conceived, a fertilized egg possesses only human potential, not "humanness" itself. When that occurs has never, in moral terms, been satisfactorily resolved.
Second, the bishops' position affects a quality of absoluteness that does not exist.
Catholic doctrine prohibits an abortion in cases of rape or incest. When a woman's life is at serious risk, Catholic teaching holds that her claim on life supersedes that of the fetus or child: in ethical terms, the "double effect."
Moreover, Catholic teaching admits to such taking of life as in self-defense and in its doctrine of a "just war." So even for Catholics there is no absolute aspect to the sanctity of life, however precious we hold life to be.
Finally, the Catholic Church teaches that it is up to an individual, not the church, to resolve matters of conscience as best that individual can inform her or his conscience. For some women, that may include considering an abortion.
In lobbying Congress to adopt the Church's position via the Stupak Amendment, the American Catholic bishops advocate enactment of a particular religious belief, one at odds with many other churches. Many of these churches allow for an abortion in cases of rape, incest and the health of the woman.
The Catholic bishops, then, argue that Congress should enshrine in law a particular belief of their religion. That would not be in the best interest of our multidenominational, multicultural people and would be an abuse of our democratic, nondenominational system of government.
If the bishops succeed in killing health-care reform for the sake of their position on abortion, they will have on their hands the exclusion of the poor from quality medical attention, the stain of untreated illnesses, and the scandal of a private insurance system that too often pits profits against people.
There is no moral high ground in such an outcome.Sam R. Sperry served as an editor at the Seattle P-I and on the Washington State Catholic Conference Board. He is a lifelong Catholic educated here in Catholic schools.
Sam and Sara Lucchese create handmade pasta out of their kitchen-garage adjacent to their Ballard home. Here, they illustrate the final steps in making pappardelle pasta.
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