Did the Bishops Make a Mistake Opposing Affordable Healthcare?

When Congress passed the Affordable Care Act in 2009, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops ultimately opposed final passage.  The bishops’ decision to oppose the very lifesaving legislation that they had advocated for several decades provided coverage and legitimacy for Republicans to target the pro-life Democrats.  The results of the 2010 midterm elections were devastating.

One of the key players at the USCCB, Richard Doerflinger, the associate director of the Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities, recently announced his retirement after 36 years with the Conference.  In an article in the National Catholic Register, Doerflinger noted one regret over his tenure: the decision by pro-life advocates to target pro-life Democrats.  We acknowledge Doerflinger’s admission of this mistake, and we hope and trust that pro-lifers will work together in the future—including with pro-life Democrats—to meet the mounting challenges in our nation from the increasingly aggressive efforts to promote abortion.

As Doerflinger says, after the passage of the ACA, what happened “was very tragic”: Pro-life Democrats who had supported the Stupak Amendment to limit abortions, but who ultimately made the judgment to vote for the law, “were targeted in the next election.” 
While Doerflinger still disagrees with the votes for the ACA, he emphasizes:

“Pro-lifers’ decision to target these legislators was unwise.  They were pro-life members of the House, a force for our values within the Democrat Party, and you lost them as allies.”

Lost we did.  In 2009, 62 Democrats voted against taxpayer funding of abortion.  Today, there are only a handful of right-to-life Democrats left in the U.S. House of Representatives, and 88% of those seats are now in the hands of Republicans—members who do not agree with the USCCB on immigration reform, paid maternity leave, and devastating budget cuts that curtail support for the poor.  While these are still pro-life seats with respect to abortion restrictions, those members tend to oppose the social support that is critical to providing fuller support for women and families to choose not to abort their children.


Pro-life Democrats are natural allies of Catholic social-justice teachings and policies.  They are the most consistent when it comes to supporting programs, such as healthcare, that help struggling families and reduce the economic pressure to abort their children.


In 2009, unlike their Republican pro-life colleagues, pro-life Democrats saw the life-saving potential in the Affordable Care Act, and many worked with the USCCB to pass the bill into law.  They put their belief that healthcare is a human right above their careers.  For their commitment, they were targeted and defeated the next election cycle.


Nothing hurt pro-life Democrats more than the decision by the USCCB to oppose the final version because of their belief that the law would increase the abortion rate.
Back in 2009, we pleaded with the USCCB not to take this hardcore position against the bill that would provide so many lifesaving procedures to so many, including prenatal care for women.  We urged the USCCB to consider our position that federal funding of abortion could and would be prevented.  Instead, they supported the prediction of other people that the ACA would cause a severe outbreak of publicly funded abortion.


The USCCB’s refusal gave license to conservative pro-life groups to target pro-life Democrats by claiming, “They voted for the largest expansion of abortion since Roe v. Wade.”  Billboards, flyers, and advertisements targeted Congressman Jim Oberstar (D-MN) (co-author of the Hyde Amendment), Congressman Steve Dreihaus (D-OH), Congresswoman Kathy Dahlkemper (D-PA), and others who were making real progress representing the pro-life point of view within the Democratic Party.


Conservative pro-lifers were committed to the notion that lines of women would form outside federally funded clinics, eager to wait for their “free” abortions funded by our hard-earned tax dollars.  A Lozier Institute report cautioned that the ACA would swell abortion rates by more than 111,500 federally funded abortions per year.


Fortunately, the Lozier report was flat-out wrong.  A 2016 Associated Press study indicated that the number of abortions has decreased at an average rate of 12 percent in almost every state.


The debate on the ACA brought awareness to the number of health insurance plans covering abortion and increased demand for, and awareness of, plans that do not cover abortion.  A majority of health insurance companies and organizations, including the Republican National Committee, covered abortion at that time.  Prior to the ACA, five states restricted abortion coverage in insurance.


Today, twenty-six states prohibit abortion coverage.  Twenty-one states allow coverage for abortion only in limited circumstances.  Next year, every state must provide at least one plan that does not include abortion coverage.  And more families have access to health care.  Only two (both in Alaska) of the 155 multi-state plans cover abortion.


We are glad to see committed pro-life people such as Richard Doerflinger coming around to see that it was “tragic” and “a mistake” to attack pro-life legislators in the Democratic Party—warriors on related social justice issues.  Unfortunately, the loss of those seats, over a false claim about increased abortions, may take decades to repair.


Did the USCCB make a mistake with its position on the bill?  “Catholic” – uncapitalized – means universal, all-embracing, intended for all people – “big tent”, with room enough for everybody.  In a civilized society,  we must recognize and protect the right of the have-nots, no less than the haves, to medical care, just as we recognize and protect everyone’s right to education, everyone’s right to “the pursuit of happiness,” everyone’s right to “liberty” – and as we ought to recognize and protect everyone’s right to life.  Isn’t this, after all, what the bishops have in mind when they encourage people to put the Catholic Faith into action – a “catholic” (lower case c) government always working for the common good?


The bishops certainly lost a lot of their most consistent allies, not only in Washington but also around the country.  However, we must learn from our mistakes. There is a scene in Disney’s “The Lion King” where Rafiki (a baboon) hits Simba (a lion) on the head.  Sore at the attack, Simba says, “What did you do that for?” Rafiki responds, “It doesn’t matter.  It is in the past.”


We all could learn from this.  Whatever disagreements we had are just that: in the past. We must look forward and work together to support current members and candidates who are committed to the protection of life and whole life principles.  Party label does not dictate one’s commitment.  When we return to this philosophy, good people who are pro-life but differ on other issues can come together to do good for the protection of vulnerable lives.