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How Catholic Bishops Threw the Health Care Debate into Turmoil with Anti-Abortion Maneuver

It took a virulently anti-choice measure to pass the House's health care reform legislation. Progressives are strategizing how to keep it from the final bill.

It was a bold power play -- one that caught progressive members of the Democratic caucus off-guard, and one that has sown distrust and dissension among House Democrats.

With a major assist from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, two members of Congress -- both members, as well, of a secretive, right-wing religious group -- made it impossible for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., to pass an historic health care reform bill without the attachment of anti-abortion amendment that, if signed into law, could set women's rights back decades.

While few think the amendment's draconian language will find its way into a final bill, its passage last weekend as part of the Affordable Health Care For Americans Act set the stage for a battle that could determine whether health care reform legislation ever makes it to the Senate floor for a vote.

The amendment, spearheaded by Bart Stupak, D-Mich., goes far beyond the standard prohibition on the use of federal dollars for abortion services known as the Hyde Amendment; Stupak's would prohibit the purchase, through the health insurance exchange the bill would create, of even private health insurance plans that cover abortion -- even for women who were not eligible for government-subsidized premiums.

The cumulative effect of the Stupak amendment is it would likely kill abortion coverage in nearly all health insurance plans, whether purchased through the exchanges or not, since the exchanges will come to constitute the bulk of the market for policies purchased by individuals.

It would also affect the coverage offered employees of the federal government -- one of the nation's largest employers -- who already choose from among a range of insurance packages offered in the Federal Employee Health Benefits Plan.

"This is a very serious development here," said Kate Michelman, the former president of NARAL. "Women across the country -- Democratic women in particular -- but women, I would argue, all across the country, as they are learning about this, are really, really upset.  And this isn't only the result of the bishops; this is the party, as well, not really standing up for women and allowing a group of conservative Democrats, who they recruited and helped elect, rule the day in the House." (Michelman has an essay on this topic, co-authored with Frances Kissling, on the op-ed page of today's New York Times.)

Stupak and Rep. Joe Pitts, R-Pa., the co-sponsor of his amendment, are members of The Family, the stealthy religious group exposed by journalist Jeff Sharlet in his book of the same name. In both houses of Congress, members of The Family have been working for months to defeat health care reform. Although the anti-choice views of both men are said to be rooted in their religion, it's hard not to suspect their amendment of being a poison pill intended to kill health care reform entirely. After all, the bill already contained language restricting the use of federal money for abortion.

How Stupak Happened

As members prepared last weekend for the vote on landmark health care reform legislation, House leaders thought they had forged a compromise, after days of negotiation with anti-choice members of Congress, that would assure conservaDems that no public monies would be disbursed through the federally administered health insurance program the bill would create. 

Then, at the 11th hour, the compromise fell apart. The Catholic bishops weren't buying in, and that was enough to scuttle the deal. Stupak said he wouldn't vote for the health care bill unless his amendment saw a vote, and Pelosi needed his vote and the votes of members he claimed to represent.