Led by two Baltimore prelates, the nation's Roman Catholic bishops today were warning of an intensified campaign to mobilize millions of members of their church against any health care plan that requires all health insurers to cover abortion as part of a standard package of benefits.
In a letter to congressional leaders this week from Archbishop William H. Keeler and Bishop John R. Ricard, both of Baltimore, and others, the bishops reaffirmed their support for changing the health system to achieve universal coverage. But they promised "vigorous opposition" to any health plan that includes a requirement of abortion coverage.
Although the bishops have stated this position repeatedly over the past two years, they have watched with consternation as each of the five draft health bills that have passed congressional committees has included a requirement for abortion coverage.
"We haven't been listened to," said Helen Alvare, a spokeswoman for the the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. "It was our hope that by now we would have been able to impress on members of Congress the dramatic violation of our conscience that inclusion of abortion would be."
Currently, most private health plans include coverage of abortions, but Catholics and others have the choice of buying insurance that does not include it.
Requiring such coverage in a uniform national benefits package "will force millions of employers, churches and individuals to subsidize abortion in violation of their consciences," the bishops' letter said, and "will jeopardize the future of Catholic and other religious providers of health care."
The letter, sent to 30 leaders of Congress, was signed by Archbishop Keeler, president of the bishops' conference; Bishop Ricard, of the bishops' Domestic Policy Committee; and Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles, chairman of the conference's Pro-Life Committee.
Church officials around the country are beginning a stepped-up effort to press their opposition in personal visits to political leaders and to mobilize Catholics in parishes, church organizations and throughout the extensive Catholic hospital system, in hopes they will make their views known to Congress.
Church officials said they hoped that when congressional leaders and the White House craft final health legislation in the coming weeks, it will be apparent that the political costs of
including abortion services will outweigh the benefits.
In effect, the Catholic leaders are offering a carrot and a stick. They have pledged their strong support for a major overhaul of health care that includes universal coverage, so long as it excludes abortion services. But they also said a plan that includes abortion coverage will face organized opposition from Catholic leaders and groups around the country.
The abortion issue is one of the biggest concerns of the Democratic strategists trying to piece together a majority for a health care bill. Their fear is that coming down on either side of the issue will cost votes. With Democratic leaders increasingly aware of how narrow a margin they may be working with to pass a health care bill, the hunt will be intense for some kind of compromise.
Last month, Hillary Rodham Clinton seemed to open the door to a strategic retreat, even on abortion, saying: "It is very difficult to tell exactly where we are going to have to make whatever compromise."
Abortion rights advocates, who note that most Americans already have abortion services covered in private insurance plans, have vowed to fight any effort to remove abortion from any new, standard benefits package.
"While everyone respects the dictates of individual conscience, we strongly oppose the bishops' plan to impose their views on women's reproductive health on society as a whole," said James Wagoner, executive vice president of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League.
The bishops were to announce their intensified campaign today in Washington. They also were to distribute the results of a national poll they commissioned that they say buttresses their political strategy.
The survey, they say, shows widespread support for universal health-care coverage but also that this support plummets when abortion services are included among the required benefits.
The two-pronged position -- support for universal coverage as well as strong opposition to including abortion services -- distinguishes the bishops' position from that of some conservative Christian groups who not only oppose abortion but also oppose virtually any major health-care changes.