Law Prof: Pro-Abortion Health Care Overhaul Spells Danger for Catholic Hospitals

By Kathleen Gilbert

WASHINGTON, D.C., September 23, 2009 ( – Abortion-mandating measures such as those found in the Obama administration’s House health care bill could threaten the existence of Catholic hospitals, which would in turn render America vulnerable to a widescale dehumanization of healthcare, according to one health care law and policy expert.

Leonard J. Nelson III, a professor at the Cumberland School of Law at Samford University, is author of the book “Diagnosis Critical: The Urgent Threats Confronting Catholic Health Care” (OSV 2009).

In an interview with the National Review Tuesday, Nelson said the legislation’s opposition to Catholic pro-life values would have serious implications for Catholic and non-Catholic Americans alike, who face a seismic shift from “a sanctity-of-life ethic in favor of a quality-of-life ethic.”

“Catholic hospitals are the primary alternative to government-owned and for-profit hospitals in the United States,” said the law professor. “At their best, Catholic hospitals offer a distinctive product by combining traditional health-care services with a commitment to serving the poor and promoting the sanctity of life.

“If Catholic hospitals disappear, there will be even a greater likelihood that health care in the United States will become a unitary governmental system.

“This would lead to a vast increase in the power of the federal government and a concomitant decline in the role of intermediate groups that enhance social cohesion and humanize health care.”

Nelson noted that Catholic hospitals provide consumers “an attractive option in the health-care marketplace” with quality health care upheld by the U.S. bishops’ Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health-Care Services (ERDs). But as Catholic hospitals face the encroachment of anti-life utilitarian methods, Nelson said the stakes in their decision to either fight or acquiesce to the new ethos “are very high for Catholic health care and for our society.”

Said Nelson: “There is already a prevalent view among post-Christian elites in the West that the sanctity-of-life ethic is archaic and should be replaced by a utilitarian framework that would be used to allocate health-care services at both the beginning and the end of life.

“As we move into an era of increased demands on health-care resources due to the aging of the baby-boomer generation, it is likely that there will be proposals to ration health care through physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia. At the other end of the spectrum, abortion and even infanticide of handicapped babies will be advanced as humanistic alternatives to reduce the costs of health care.”

Nelson confirmed that, under the Capps amendment, the House version of Obama’s health care overhaul mandates inclusion of abortion in the public health insurance options and some private plans. Both the House and Senate bills’ language is open to including abortion in a standard benefits package, which would be defined under the pro-abortion Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. In addition, the House bill calls for all employer-provided insurance plans to provide the standard benefit package after five years.

“The current health-care reform proposals have the potential to achieve everything FOCA would have achieved and more,” said Nelson. The Freedom of Choice Act, or FOCA, refers to legislation that would enshrine abortion as a fundamental human right, thereby rendering practically all state and federal level restrictions on abortion void. Such abortion-expanding language, he said, “would change the environment for Catholic health-care providers.”

“Most health plans would expect providers in their networks to provide access to abortions,” he noted. “This would pressure Catholic providers to provide either abortions or abortion referrals, as well as sterilizations, in order to be included in health-care networks.”

Nelson said it would be up to local bishops whether Catholic hospitals would shut down under such federal mandates.

“At the very least, no bishop would allow abortions to be performed in a Catholic hospital,” Nelson said. “It is also probable that bishops would not permit Catholic hospitals to provide abortion referrals. If hospitals were required to do this, they could be shut down, continue operation as non-Catholic facilities, or be sold to a non-Catholic system.”

Nelson also said it is “appropriate for Catholics to oppose universal government-run health care under the principle of subsidiarity,” which “has been frequently mentioned in papal encyclicals as a basic principle of Catholic social teaching.” The principle of subsidiarity requires that issues such as health care be managed in as de-centralized a fashion as possible.

Nelson called it unfortunate that liberal Catholic groups have pushed Obama’s health care proposals “despite the fact that they will likely result in abortion-coverage mandates for private plans and taxpayer subsidies for abortion in the public plan.”

“It is vitally important that Catholics pay close attention to health-care reform,” he said. “If the legislation is not amended so as to be abortion-neutral and provide conscience protection for Catholic providers, then lay Catholics should let their legislators know of their opposition to reform.”