Clerics, fearful on health care, to meet Clinton plan's possible abortion access spurs bishops' parley


The nation's 33 Catholic archbishops, long proponents o universally available health care, are to quietly convene a meeting in Chicago tomorrow amid fears that President Clinton's soon-to-be-announced health care plan will include abortion services -- making the plan unsupportable by the Catholic Church.

The agenda for the meeting has been kept secret, but questions about the place of abortion, euthanasia and doctor-assisted suicide in the still-undisclosed reform plan appear to have prompted the gathering.

Mr. Clinton said in January that he wanted the plan to include "access to . . . abortion services," and the White House has indicated that abortion probably will be part of a required package of basic benefits. However, there has been no indication that Hillary Rodham Clinton's health task force will support euthanasia or doctor-assisted suicide.

The bishops support "a comprehensive health care system that will ensure a decent level of health care for all Americans without regard to their ability to pay," Auxiliary Bishop John Ricard of Baltimore, chairman of the bishops' Domestic Policy Committee, said in an April 16 letter.

But Bishop Ricard also stressed that abortion and euthanasia are inconsistent with the respect for human life that motivates Catholic interest in health care reform.

Roman Catholic leaders have a great deal at stake. Hospitals and other facilities run by Catholic dioceses and religious orders are the largest non-public providers of health services, serving about 40 million people annually. And their parishes and social service agencies are where many of the nation's more than 37 million medically uninsured turn in a health care crisis.

Unlike other religious and political conservatives with whom they are allied in opposing abortion, Catholic bishops do support government action to meet social needs. But unease with the direction of the Clinton panel has been growing.

"You and I should be concerned that proposals for health care reform do not marginalize or even serve to destroy Catholic health care because it will not 'fit in' to a national set of standards which might, for example, demand the provision of abortions and tubal ligations as a condition for 'complete health services,' " Monsignor William Murphy, an adviser to Cardinal Bernard F. Law, warned in a March 6 column in the Boston archdiocesan newspaper.

Officials of the bishops conference were clearly discomfited to have the meeting disclosed. They said no press coverage would be allowed.

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