Bishops Press Obama to Strike Senate Provision Allowing Federal Abortion Funding

Justin Rigali, Catholic Archbishop of Philadelphia (AP).

Justin Rigali, Catholic Archbishop of Philadelphia (AP).  (AP )

A coalition of Christian leaders -- including the country's Catholic bishops -- put President Obama on notice Friday that it would vigorously fight any health care reform legislation that allows federal funding for abortions.

"A health care bill can be a great, great blessing to our country," Philadelphia Archbishop Justin Rigali said during a press conference Friday on Capitol Hill. "But we make a distinction between health care and killing."

More than 150 Christian leaders, most of them conservative evangelicals and traditionalist Roman Catholics, issued a joint declaration reaffirming their opposition to abortion and gay marriage and pledging to protect religious freedoms.

The 4,700-word document, called "The Manhattan Declaration: A Call of Christian Conscience," was unveiled one day before the Senate is expected to consider it's sweeping health care bill that includes a measure permitting abortion funding.

"We're counting on legislators to make sure that this is not part of what's going to rule the lives of people," Rigali said. "Any bill that has abortion in it has to be rejected."

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New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan, who is among 15 Roman Catholic bishops who have signed the document, forcefully opposes overturning the decades-long restriction on federal funding of abortions.

"The archbishop has supported efforts to make certain that abortion is not part of the health care bill," Joseph Zwilling, director of communications for the Archdiocese of New York, told FoxNews.com Friday.

Dolan is calling for the "status quo to remain," he said, citing current law known as the Hyde Amendment that restricts government abortion funding.

Click here to read the document.  

A top Obama administration official on Thursday praised the new Senate health care bill's attempt to find a compromise on abortion coverage but an official of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said Sen. Harry Reid's bill is the worst he's seen so far on the divisive issue.

The abortion dispute threatens to blow up the fragile political coalition behind Obama's health care overhaul.

But Christian leaders insisted Friday that the declaration is not politically motivated, saying it has been in the works for awhile. They called it a mere coincidence that it was unveiled just as the Senate preps to debate its health care reform bill.

"This has been under way for a long long time and while there will always be local issues that are reflected in this declaration.....this declaration is meant to bring us all together globally to state the [Christian] principles," said Archbishop of Washington Donald William Wuerl, adding that the causes in the document transcend politics.

The bishops were instrumental in getting tough anti-abortion language adopted by the House, forcing Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., to accept restrictions that outraged liberals as the price for passing the Democratic health care bill. Reid, D-Nev., now faces a similar choice: Ultimately, he will need the votes of Democratic senators who oppose abortion to get his bill through the Senate.

So far, Reid has steered the Senate bill in a direction that abortion rights supporters can live with: allowing coverage for abortion in federally subsidized health care plans, provided that beneficiaries' own premiums are used to pay for the procedure. But abortion opponents say his compromise would gut current federal restrictions on abortion funding.

In the document, the groups contends that Obama's desire to reduce the need for abortion is "a commendable goal," but his proposals are likely to increase the number of elective abortions.

"The present administration is led and staffed by those who want to make abortions legal at any stage of fetal development, and who want to provide abortions at taxpayer expense," it says.

Other signatories include Focus on the Family founder James Dobson, National Association of Evangelicals president Leith Anderson and a host of seminary leaders, professors and pastors.

Despite backlash from critics, there were growing indications Reid would prevail on an initial Senate showdown set for Saturday night. He needs a 60-vote majority to advance the bill toward full debate, expected to begin after Thanksgiving and last for weeks. It's during that debate that the battle over abortion will be joined in earnest. Reid will need to clear other 60-vote hurdles before senators cast their final vote on the bill.

At the White House on Thursday, health reform director Nancy Ann DeParle praised Reid's effort to find a compromise on abortion.

"It was carefully worked through by the leader, who cares a lot about making sure this maintains the status quo on abortion policy," DeParle told reporters. Obama has said he wants the bill to remain neutral on abortion, and DeParle said Reid struck just the right balance.

But Richard Doerflinger, associate director of the bishops' conference Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities, said Reid's "is actually the worst bill we've seen so far on the life issues."

He called it "completely unacceptable," adding that "to say this reflects current law is ridiculous."

The bill would forbid including abortion coverage as a required medical benefit. However, it would allow a new government insurance plan to cover abortions and let private insurers that receive federal subsidies offer plans that include abortion coverage.

In all cases, the money to pay for abortions would have to come from premiums paid by beneficiaries themselves, kept strictly separate from federal subsidy dollars. Government funds could be used for abortions only in cases of rape, incest or to save the life of the mother under the Hyde amendment.

The Hyde amendment restrictions apply to Medicaid, military health care and the federal employee health plan. Many states provide abortion coverage to low-income Medicaid beneficiaries, but they must do so separately with their own funds.

Abortion opponents say Reid's bill circumvents Hyde. For example, they say that any funds a government insurance plan would use to pay for abortion would be federal funds by definition -- even if the money comes from premiums paid by beneficiaries. "All the money the government has starts out being private money," said Douglas Johnson, legislative director for National Right to Life. "Once the government has them, they're federal funds."

The restrictive language passed by the House would forbid any health plan that receives federal subsidies from paying for abortions, except as allowed by the Hyde amendment. Women would have to purchase separate coverage for abortion services. Abortion rights supporters say that fencing off government funds from private premiums would achieve the same goal, without forcing women to get special coverage for a legal medical procedure now routinely included in many private health insurance plans.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.