Catholic bishops urge passage of permanent ban on federal abortion funding

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops this week urged House lawmakers to approve legislation that would permanently ban federal funding of abortions.

Although a 1976 law — dubbed the Hyde Amendment — already prohibits taxpayer dollars from subsidizing elective abortions under Medicaid and other federal health programs, the provision is temporary, forcing Congress to pass it each year as an attachment to the Health and Human Services (HHS) funding bill.

A House proposal, introduced last month by Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), would both make the prohibition permanent and apply it across all federal programs.

In a Friday letter to House lawmakers, Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo, who heads the Catholic Bishop's pro-life activities committee, said the Smith bill would codify a policy that "has been piecemeal and sometimes sadly inadequate."

"Federal funds are prevented now from funding abortion by riders to various annual appropriations bills as well as by provisions incorporated into specific authorizing legislation for the Department of Defense, Children’s Health Insurance Program, foreign assistance, and so on," DiNardo wrote. "On various occasions a gap or loophole has been discovered that does not seem to be addressed by this patchwork of provisions.

"While Congress’s policy has been remarkably consistent for decades," he added, "implementation of that policy in practice has been piecemeal and sometimes sadly inadequate."

The issue played an enormous role in the health reform debate, with Democrats finally settling on a policy that allows subsidized exchange plans to cover abortion services — as long as patients pay separately for that portion of the coverage. 

Supporters say the segregated-check arrangement ensures women retain access to constitutionally guaranteed healthcare while also preventing taxpayer funds from covering abortion services. But critics argue that, because money is fungible, it's impossible to ensure federal funds won't subsidize abortions.

The health reform law, DiNardo said, "violates the spirit of the entire [Hyde] amendment, by directly forcing conscientiously opposed citizens in many plans to fund other people’s abortions through their health premiums."

The Smith bill has 166 co-sponsors, including 20 Democrats.