George Weigel

To Sanctify the World: The Vital Legacy of Vatican II

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Nancy Pelosi and the Claims of Conscience

On September 28, a bipartisan group of 187 Members of the U.S. House of Representatives, led by Michigan Democrat Bart Stupak and Pennsylvania Republican Joe Pitts, sent a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Rules Committee chair Louise Slaughter. The key paragraphs follow:

“Proposed health reform legislation, H.R. 3200…radically departs from the current federal government policy of not paying for elective abortion or subsidizing plans that cover abortion. None of the bills reported out of the three committees of jurisdiction have addressed our serious concerns about public funding for abortion. The version that was approved by the House Energy and Commerce Committee, containing the Capps Amendment, actually explicitly authorizes the federal government (the Department of Health and Human Services) to directly fund elective abortions, with federal (public) funds drawn on a federal Treasury account. Widely circulated claims that these would be 'private' funds are misleading; they are contrary to law and the until-now universal understanding of what constitutes federal funds. The simple fact is that under the Capps language, the U.S. Treasury will be permitted to issue checks to abortion clinics to reimburse for abortion on demand for the first time in decades.

“The bill also explicitly provides for government subsidies to pay the premiums for private insurance policies that include elective abortion coverage. This, too, is a drastic break from longstanding federal policy. The Hyde Amendment has, for over thirty years, prevented programs funded by the annual Health and Human Services Appropriations bill from financing abortion. However, H.R. 3200 bypasses the annual appropriations bills and directly appropriates funding for both the public options and the affordability credits. This means the Hyde amendment will not apply to the public option or to the premium subsidy program created by H.R. 3200. In two memos…the Congressional Research Services has confirmed that these programs will not require any future appropriations. In addition, legislation of this magnitude should include permanent language to ensure that federal funds are not used to support abortion.”

The 187 Members then requested the Speaker and the Rules Committee chair to permit a clean vote, up or down, on the Stupak-Pitts amendment, which would bar all federal funding for abortion. As of late October, Pelosi, who has cut stalwart pro-life Democrats and Republicans out of the negotiations to determine the content of the health care reform bill that the entire House is to consider, had persistently and obstinately refused that request.

This is an outrage in terms of the comity and collegiality of the House: the Speaker is using the considerable powers of her office to coerce the consciences of her fellow members. The outrage is compounded by the fact that Nancy Pelosi regularly describes herself as an “ardent” Catholic formed by the Church's social justice traditions. An “ardent Catholic” won't permit fellows Members of Congress from across the political and religious spectrum an open, clean, up-or-down vote on federal funding for abortion? Where is the social justice in this?

And where is the president who promised at Notre Dame to seek “common ground” on abortion? Has he called Speaker Pelosi to urge an open vote on the Stupak-Pitts amendment? Or do Speaker Pelosi and President Obama fear they would lose any such vote, further aggravating their base on the lifestyle left? Do Nancy Pelosi and Barack Obama care more about the rage of pro-abortion activists than they do about the consciences of the Members of the House — and the conscience of the American people?

The period between Halloween and Christmas will likely tell the tale on health care reform. The moment to act is now. It will be a dark day in the history of Catholicism in America if the Speaker of the House of Representatives, an “ardently” Catholic woman formed by sixteen years of Catholic education, willfully blocks an open vote by the people's duly elected representatives on federal funding of abortion. Write your Member of Congress, urging him or her to support a rule allowing an open, clean, up-or-down vote on the Stupak-Pitts amendment. Write Speaker Pelosi, urging her to let her House colleagues vote their consciences on this grave matter.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow and William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.

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