Letters and Op-Eds 2009
The Catholic Bishops' Double Standard
Nancy Keenan and Jon O'Brien
10 November 2009
As advocates for reproductive health, we are outraged at what transpired in the House over the weekend.
The passage of the Stupak-Pitts amendment goes far beyond the status quo on abortion restrictions and would make it nearly impossible for insurance plans in the new system to offer abortion coverage.
This campaign succeeded in large part because its supporters perpetuated falsehoods about abortion coverage in the new system.
Most notably, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and its allies in the House distorted the facts about the health reform proposal by claiming that the proposed system would have used federal dollars to cover abortion care. They’re wrong.
The original House bill included a compromise that required all plans to separate public and private dollars in the new system — ensuring that no tax dollars would ever cover abortion services.
In fact, the bishops should be familiar with this arrangement because it reflects the same principle of separation that guides their financial interaction with the federal government. The bishops have a long history of almost unlimited access to enormous quantities of federal funding. When it comes to funding for Catholic schools and hospitals or programs run by Catholic Charities, they accept federal funding with open arms. The bishops never question their own ability to lawfully manage funds from separate sources to ensure that tax dollars don’t finance religious practices.
Yet they reject the idea that others could do the same. This is the very definition of hypocrisy.
For example, Catholic hospitals depend on federal funding. Indiana has 35 Catholic hospitals and 26 other Catholic health-care facilities. In 2007, 58 percent of patients who visited these facilities were covered by Medicaid or Medicare, a proportion reflected across the country. With well over half of their revenue coming from the government, it is safe to say that Catholic hospitals survive on government funding as well as contributions from private sources.
Catholic Charities, the domestic direct service arm of the bishops, also depends on state and federal dollars. Sixty-seven percent of Catholic Charities’ income comes from government funding. That represents over $2.6 billion in 2008 — an amount that is more than three times as large as the next largest charitable recipient of federal funds, the YMCA. Just as Catholic hospitals do, Catholic Charities receives enormous quantities of government dollars while abiding by existing constitutional and statutory requirements that prevent government sponsorship of religion.
The bishops know that a vast majority of Americans, including Catholics, disagree with their hard-line dictates regarding reproductive-health care, including the bishops’ opposition to contraception.
However, when it comes to health care reform — from which many millions of people will benefit — the bishops injected divisive politics into the process and overran a compromise that would have guaranteed that no federal dollars would cover abortion care.
As this debate moves forward, U.S. senators and the public should challenge the bishops’ hypocrisy. If separation of federal funds and private dollars works for the church hierarchy, then it should also work for women’s reproductive-health care.
This op-ed originally appeared in Politico.