Bishops reprise old abortion fight with higher stakes

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Thirty-three years ago this fall, a bitter, race-tinged fight over abortion matched Roman Catholic bishops and the House against the nation’s first popularly elected black senator, Republican Ed Brooke of Massachusetts.

Now, with health care reform on the line, the same male-dominated church hierarchy is dictating to the first woman speaker of the House, Democrat Nancy Pelosi, a Catholic herself and past ally for the bishops on everything from human rights in China to tax credits for low-income families.

Beneath this stark picture is a much more diverse nation — and set of political actors.

Two Americas have evolved since the late Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.) first attached his famous amendment in 1976 barring federal Medicaid dollars from being used to fund abortion services for poor women. Seventeen states, representing 40 percent of the nation’s population, have exercised the option to use their own money to provide abortion services for Medicaid beneficiaries. And in these same states, women generally are far more likely to rely on their private insurance plans to help pay for abortions.

At the same time, the anti-abortion lobby remains dominant in Congress, fathering “mini-Hydes” that go beyond Medicaid to affect millions of federal workers, the military, the American Indian health service, women in federal prisons and even Peace Corps volunteers.

The bishops can make a strong case that the anti-abortion language inserted into the House health care bill extends only this central principle: Federal health dollars can’t go to pay for abortions. And for 12 years, these same restrictions have applied not just to fees for abortion services but also to any federal contributions to health plans that cover elective abortions.

“We have 53 million people already under Medicaid, and now we’re going to add about 33 million uninsured?” asked Richard Doerflinger, an associate director with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. “It applies to a new situation, but it is not qualitatively a new situation.”

Or is it?...

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