Catholic Culture Overview
Catholic Culture Overview

What Caiaphas might say about health-care reform

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Sep 21, 2009

Writing for America magazine, Michael Sean Winters professes not to understand why Archbishop Raymond Burke is worried about abortion coverage in the health-care reform bill:

According to Archbishop Burke, the bill "provides for the provision of abortion, so it’s simply not acceptable." This sentence is impossible to parse unless the objection is simply that it does not take steps to outlaw abortion, which is undoubtedly true.

Actually I can parse the archbishop's sentence without difficulty. The legislation currently pending in Congress is unacceptable because it provides public funding for abortion. Is that really so hard to understand? 

Under the current plan, taxpayers will pay the health-insurance premiums for those who can't afford them. Those premiums will cover the cost of medical services, including abortion. Winters spends some time constructing an argument that the taxpayers wouldn't really be paying for the abortions; the insurers would. That's true. But the taxpayers would be paying the insurers. Thus public funds would be used to pay for abortions. 

Over on the Commonweal blog, Edward Peñlaver gets the point--although he insists that taxpayers would only be subsidizing abortion "indirectly." And he just doesn't see why it's such a major concern, in light of the other issues at play here:

How many people are we talking about? More than the 45,000 people who die each year because of the lack of access to health care?

That statistic, conjured up by researchers at the Harvard Medical School, seems highly questionable. Doctors don't list "lack of access to health care" as the cause when they sign a death certificate; the Harvard study obviously makes a whole series of assumptions that might be contested. And no health-care reform proposal can eliminate the problem of access entirely; if you suffer a massive coronary while you're on a solitary walk in the woods, you won't have "access to health care," no matter how good your insurance policy might be. But for the sake of the argument, let's assume that the figure is rock-solid. If a given health-care system could prevent 45,000 deaths a year, how many abortions could be justified under that system?

The answer: None. If direct abortion is intrinsically evil (and it is), then it can never be justified, no matter how many other lives might be saved. But in fact, even that argument is a canard, because it's not logically necessary to accept taxpayer-funded abortion in order to provide health coverage for those Americans who are currently uninsured. If President Obama and his Democratic allies were willing, the plan could easily be amended to exclude abortion coverage, and this argument would evaporate overnight. 

So why aren't liberal Catholics urging Democrats to accept such an amendment? Why are the authors at America and Commonweal putting so much pressure on pro-life activists, asking them to make concessions? Michael Sean Winters explains: 

We have other avenues for pursuing our pro-life goals. Health care reform is contentious enough.

It's a question of priorities. Some people look at the health-care proposals, and see in the fine print an attempt to enlist American taxpayers in support of an abomination. Others look at the proposal as a noble cause, and wish the opponents wouldn't make things more difficult with these inconvenient moral absolutes. Health-care reform, this latter group argues, would be a huge benefit for the entire country. If a few unborn children have to die in the process-- and if you and I find our names listed (indirectly!) on the death warrant-- well, that's an another issue that we really should take up later.

This isn't a new argument. Remember?

But one of them, Ca'iaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, "You know nothing at all; you do not understand that it is expedient for you that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation should not perish.


Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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