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Holy War Erupts Among Catholics Over Abortion Language in Health Care Bill

Pope Benedict XVI listens to his personal secretary Georg Gaenswein during a general audience in St. Peter's square at the Vatican, Wednesday, March 17, 2010. (AP)

The abortion language in President Obama's health care reform bill has ignited something of a holy war among Catholics, who are sharply divided on whether the legislation would allow the government to subsidize the termination of pregnancies.

While groups representing Catholic hospitals and liberal nuns have come out in support of the bill in recent days, other groups representing Catholic bishops and other nuns have denounced it, saying the bill contains restrictions on abortion funding that don't go far enough.

The White House has touted the support of a group of liberal Catholic nuns in an effort to win over conservative House Democrats who believe the final health care bill they will vote on contains restrictions on abortion funding that they and Catholic bishops say don't go far enough.

Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., who has led the charge to include in the final bill the tougher anti-abortion language passed last November by the House, derided the White House for touting the nuns' support.

"When I'm drafting right-to-life language, I don't call up nuns," he said. Instead, he said he confers with other groups, including "leading bishops, Focus on the Family, and The National Right to Life Committee."

But the liberal nuns aren't the only ones supporting the bill.

On Saturday, the chief executive of the Catholic Health Association, which represents more than 600 hospitals that do not provide abortions as a matter of conscience, wrote on the group's Web site that although the legislation isn't perfect, it represents a "major first step" toward covering all Americans and would make "great improvements" for millions of people.

But on Monday, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops took issue with the hospital association's belief that defects to the bill will be fixed after passage.

"Assurances that the moral objections to the legislation can be met only after the bill is passed seemed little like asking us, in Midwestern parlance, to buy a pig in a poke," Cardinal Francis George, president of the conference said on the group's Web site.

In an unusual public break with bishops, some 60 leaders of religious orders representing 59,000 Catholic nuns sent lawmakers a letter Wednesday urging them to pass the Senate bill.

"Despite false claims to the contrary, the Senate bill will not provide taxpayer funding for elective abortions," the letter says, adding that the legislation also will help support pregnant women and "this is the real pro-life stance."

But another group, the National Council of Major Superior of Women Religious, which represents 129 orders and nearly 10,000 nuns, say the bishops' position is "authentic" and expressed outrage that the liberal social justice advocacy group Network is attempting to speak on behalf of the Catholic nuns.

"Protection of life and freedom of conscience are central to morally responsible judgment," the group said. "We join the bishops in seeking ethically sound legislation."

The current legislation would allow private insurance plans operating in a new insurance marketplace to cover abortions, provided they do not use taxpayer funds. What makes that tricky is that many of the plans' customers would be receiving federal subsidies to help pay their premiums. So the legislation requires plans offering abortion coverage to collect a separate premium from their policyholders. Those separate checks would have to be kept in a different account from money for other health care services.

The abortion provisions in Obama's bill are identical to those in the Senate legislation that passed on Christmas Eve. But the bishops and National Right to Life prefer the approach in the House bill.

The House bill prohibited any plans receiving federal subsidies from covering abortion. Women desiring insurance coverage for the procedure would have to buy a separate policy.

Federal law since the 1970s has forbidden the use of taxpayer funds to cover abortions except in cases of rape, incest or to save the life of the mother. But many private insurance plans cover abortion as a legal medical procedure. How to deal with the divisive issue in health care overhaul was a source of controversy from the beginning.

The Rev. Frank Pavone, national director for Priests of Life, blasted the liberal nuns, saying their statement in support of the bill "does not represent 59,000 nuns; it represents approximately 59 nuns who signed it."

Pavone said while he's not sure on what expert analysis the signers have relied, the bishops relied on the expertise of legal analysts.

"It is absurd to advocate social justice while risking the expansion of a holocaust," he said. "The right to life is at the heart of social justice. We can't pursue one by sacrificing the other."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.