Were the Bishops Used by the Pro-Life Movement?

Were the Bishops Used by the Pro-Life Movement? January 28, 2010

I have been more than a little disappointed with the US bishops during the healthcare debate. I do not doubt their utter sincerity, but I question their political savvy. In fact, this precedes the healthcare debate. Time after time, we have seen the US bishops acting as the cart being pulled by the pro-life horse, and I pro-life I mean the “professional” political pro-life movement that is solidly wedded to the agenda and strategy of the Republican party and the whole cult of individualism that mis-names itself conservative.

Consider the past year. Prompted by the pro-life zealots determined to paint Obama as the “most pro-abortion president in history”, the USCCB got caught up in faux-FOCA panic. FOCA was not an issue, and it was never going to be an issue. But because of some stupid comment of Obama’s from a few years back, it became a central rallying cry for the prolife movement that was opposed to Obama on so many other levels. And the bishops followed. And when the pro-life movement erupted again over Obama’s degree at a midwestern Catholic university, the bishops followed again, with some of them acting as if it were the most important issue facing the country. (In contrast,  there seems very little outcry in Catholics circles to the granting of a “pro-life” award to George W. Bush by the Legatus group.) This pattern appeared even after a record of making very little public comment about the many immoral policies of the previous administration, including the legitimization of torture and the practice of pre-emptive and unjust war.

The professional pro-life movement never showed much interest in life issues beyond abortion. The movement cared little about, and often showed ideological disdain for, the policies that might reduce abortion – this in spite of  the Declaration on Procured Abortion’s clear statement that “one can never approve of abortion, but it is above all necessary to combat its causes…it is necessary…to do everything possible to help families, mothers and children.” The abortion issue has been used time and again as a trojan horse to hide those policies that are less than palatable in Catholic circles. Using the unborn for political gain has become quite a cynical sport.

Look at the record. The movement is satisfied with minor and symbolic victories, victories that do little for the incidence of abortion, but do a lot for their fund-raising efforts. And of course, the great ace-in-the-hole is the ability to nominate the “right” Supreme Court judges. Sure, Bush made two picks that earned him great accolades, but while his judges continue to steer the court further in the direction of big business and corporate interests, nothing was done to tackle the conditions that lead to abortion. Under Bush, median real income declined by 4.3 percent, poverty rose by 26 percent, child poverty shot up by 21 percent, and the number of uninsured also increased by 21 percent.

The pro-life movement seems to care little for changing the very culture that is so supportive of abortion “rights”. Changing the culture is hard, time consuming. Nobody says otherwise. Ask William Wilberforce. But the very political strategy of the pro-life movement itself sets the clock back even further, by aligning the interests of the unborn with big business, with war, with torture, with environmental hooliganism. This hypocrisy disgusts the pro-choice crowd. As well it should.

The healthcare debate really shone a light on the jaded tactics of the pro-life movement. It was very clear very quickly that killing the healthcare bill became the number one propriety of the political right. And the pro-life movement played its part perfectly. Its long courtship with the political right was finally consummated. The nadir was reached with the elation over the election of Scott Brown to the Senate, a man who is proudly pro-abortion and proudly pro-torture, a man who resembles nobody as much as Rudy Giuliani, who not so long ago was demonized by this very same pro-life movement. But times had changed. There was a healthcare bill to kill. And Brown might be able to deliver the fatal blow. Hence, his great victory was to be celebrated – even at the March for Life, of all places.

And yet, the pro-lifers claim steadfastly to oppose healthcare for its abortion provisions. But is this true? When the House passed a bill with the ironclad Stupak protections against abortion, the pro-life movement did not embrace the bill. They continued to oppose. Yet again, they used the unborn for political gain. Their real loyalty was to the American cult of individualism, which objected to forcing people to purchase health insurance, and especially to forcing the healthy to subsidize the sick, either directly through community rating, or indirectly through budgetary subsidies. This was really why they opposed reform, not abortion.

Which brings me back to where I started – to the role of the bishops. I believe the bishops have been poorly served by the pro-life movement during this debate. I believe they were intimidated into supporting a maximalist position that would not have happened even a few years ago, and would seem peculiar in other countries, including Catholic countries. Perhaps they felt trapped in that position as so many Catholics on the left were all too ready to mock and dismiss them on a whole host of teachings, including sexual issues. Perhaps they feared the attacks they would face if they showed any weakness to this group. But they were poorly served, and their latest letter pleading with Congress not to let healthcare fail seems almost tinged with regret. One thing we know for sure – this regret is not shared by the so-called pro-lifers, the Robbie Georges and others, who are relishing the defeat of healthcare and their own role in it.

Just think through some of the issues on abortion and healthcare. Once we start from the position that abortion is covered by private health insurance plans, it becomes very difficult to design a reform that simultaneously increases coverage without including abortion. I believe the Democrats went further than many thought possible to meet these concerns. Personally, I support the Stupak position. I think the Stupak position is better than the Nelson compromise, but not that much better, and certainly not better enough to derail the whole reform. After all, Nelson would allow states to forbid abortion coverage, give people the option of an abortion-free plan, and shine attention on abortion coverage by separating payments (if you can’t see the value in forcing such attention, just ask the RNC).

The problem is, the bishops trapped themselves in a corner by drawing the line with Stupak. We all know that the issue relates to the degree of proximity of taxpayer funding to each and every act of abortion, and that this proximity is not that close, given that the plans are private plans funded by private premia, and the only relationship to the taxpayer is through subsidies to people under a certain income level (and anyway, private premia are equally tainted).

Nobody seems to be noting that the Republican health reform plans would suffer from similar – if not greater – problems. After all, granting tax credits makes it cheaper for people to purchase private plans with abortion, and allowing insurance plans to be sold across state lines would gut the Nelson provision allowing states to ban abortion coverage. The bottom line is that if abortion coverage is widespread in private plans, then these issues become unavoidable.

 By all means, the bishops were right to push for as much distance as possible between abortion and healthcare, and I applauded them all the way, but to draw the line in such arbitrary manner makes little sense. However, it makes a lot of sense to the pro-life movement, for entirely different reasons. And therein lies the problem.

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