Speaking out for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Utah Bishop John Wester says the U.S. Senate should not pass its current health care reform bill because the way it handles funding for abortion is crucially flawed.
"We would love to have health reform. We think it's a good thing for our country, especially for the poor," Wester, bishop of the Salt Lake City diocese, said in an interview Wednesday.
But, he added, "We do not see a place in this health reform package for federal tax dollars to pay for abortions. For us, abortion would be the antithesis of health reform. It has nothing to do with health, it has to do with death."
A chief goal of the reform is expanding coverage to 30 million more Americans by providing $871 billion in subsidies for small businesses and individuals to buy insurance through state-run marketplaces called exchanges.
The bishops say the bill allows those federal subsidies to support health plans that cover elective abortions, though there is some dispute about that.
Wester, along with Bishop William F. Murphy from New York and Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Texas, wrote a letter Tuesday to the Senate on behalf of Catholic bishops, saying the bill should not be voted on until it is "morally acceptable."
The bill, slated for final passage today, says people using federal subsidies to buy plans that cover abortion would have to make two separate premium payments. The payments for abortion coverage would be segregated from federal funds.
For people who choose those plans, the bishops' letter states, there is no way to "opt out of this abortion payment in federally-subsidized plans, so people will be required by law to pay for other people's abortions."
But the bill's language was crafted to earn the support of conservative Nebraska Democrat Ben Nelson, who says it meets his goal of ensuring no federal money can pay for abortions. And states could bar health plans sold through exchanges from covering abortions.
The bishops prefer the House's language on abortion, which was instrumental in getting its version passed. It bars people who use subsidies from buying plans that cover elective abortions. They could buy a separate insurance rider if they wanted such coverage.
Pro-choice advocates, such as Planned Parenthood, say both versions are essentially the same, and argue they will result in insurance companies not offering plans that cover abortion.
"Members of the Senate need to understand there are Catholics who don't want health care reform sacrificed as a result of the effort to make abortion illegal," said Melissa Bird, executive director of Planned Parenthood Action Council in Utah.
"It has derailed from the conversation about making sure all Americans have access to quality, affordable health care," she said. "And no one should lose the benefits they already have," she said, referring to plans that currently cover abortion.
Utah Sens. Bob Bennett and Orrin Hatch, who oppose the bill, lauded the bishops' statement.
"It's stunning that the Democrats are choosing to ignore an overwhelming majority of Americans that oppose the use of federal funds for abortions," Bennett said. "The Democratic health care bill defies the long-standing policy of banning taxpayer dollars from subsidizing abortions. This bill is a critical mistake for our country."
Added Hatch, who sponsored a failed amendment in the Senate to forbid any federal plan or federally subsidized plan to pay for an abortion: "If the Senate passes this $2.5 trillion tax-and-spend Washington takeover of our nation's health care system, American taxpayers will be forced to pay for elective abortions."
If the Senate passes the bill as is, Wester said, the bishops will continue to lobby for changes as lawmakers reconcile the House and Senate versions.
He said he is literally praying the Senate makes the changes now. And he plans to talk about the bill in his homilies at midnight mass tonight and Christmas morning
"We're celebrating the birth of Christ," he said. "Obviously, Mary giving birth to the savior is a rather clear analogy to the sacredness of human life, the importance of human life. ... We're just praying people will be inspired by the season to make their voice heard in this regard."
The bishops also want the final bill to expand Medicaid coverage and enable illegal immigrants to buy insurance with their own money in the exchange. If they don't have coverage, they'll end up in the emergency rooms with their care paid for by those who are insured, Wester noted.
Salt Lake Tribune reporter Thomas Burr and The Associated Press contributed to this story.