By Peter J. Smith

WASHINGTON, D.C., March 17, 2010 ( – The health care reform controversy appears to have brought serious disagreements within the U.S. Catholic Church out into the open. Just days after the Catholic Health Association endorsed the Senate health-care bill, the Catholic Leadership Conference of Women Religious has also now publicly broken ranks with the US Catholic Bishops, demanding that the House of Representatives pass the abortion-promoting legislation.

The LCWR claims to represent 59,000 US Catholic nuns, and its letter delivered to Members of Congress on Wednesday urges them “to cast a life-affirming “yes” vote when the Senate health care bill (H.R. 3590) comes to the floor of the House for a vote as early as this week.”

“We join the Catholic Health Association of the United States (CHA), which represents 1,200 Catholic sponsors, systems, facilities and related organizations, in saying: the time is now for health reform AND the Senate bill is a good way forward,” says the letter.

The letter states that the Senate bill “will make crucial investments in community health centers that largely serve poor women and children. And despite false claims to the contrary, the Senate bill will not provide taxpayer funding for elective abortions.”

They furthermore add that the bill does nothing to harm longstanding conscience protections and will support of pregnant women. “This is the REAL pro-life stance, and we as Catholics are all for it,” says the letter.

LCWR President Marlene Weisenbeck, FSPA, signed the letter along with 59 other women religious leaders, beginning with Sr. Joan Chittister, a Benedictine nun known for dissident views substantially at odds with Catholic doctrine.

The defections are a critical blow to the US Catholic Bishops Conference, which has fought doggedly to oppose the Senate health-care bill, and hold together a fragile coalition of pro-life Democrats led by Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), who have been experiencing relentless political pressure and arm-twisting to abandon their opposition to the Senate bill rooted in concerns that the measure would lead to an increase in abortion.

The USCCB has refused to support the health-care bill on several serious grounds. The Bishops have demanded better conscience protections for health-care institutions and providers. They said they must oppose the bill until language from the Pitts-Stupak amendment prohibiting federal subsidies to health-care insurance plans that cover abortions is somehow adopted.

The Bishops have also demanded that the Senate provision giving seven billion dollars to “community health centers” be amended to exclude abortion providers before they can support the bill.

The way the Senate language is written, groups like Planned Parenthood specializing in sexual and reproductive health, esp. abortions, could qualify as community health centers – which the nuns say will “serve poor women and children” – and tap into those billions set aside.

But the actions of CHA led by Sister Carol Keehan may be providing the final shove to push ObamaCare across the finish line.

Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City excoriated Keehan and CHA for providing the political cover “for any member of the House who chooses to buckle under the pressure of the President and the Democratic leadership to accept government funding of abortion.”

The Archbishop emphatically stated that the US Bishops, National Right to Life Committee, and “every other creditable pro-life organization” realize that the Senate language will make abortion more accessible through federal subsidies.

Already, some pro-life Democrats are starting to wither in their objections to the bill and cave. The resolute Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) told National Review Online as reported Friday, that he was almost certain the White House had peeled away a couple of his twelve Democrats, who pledged to vote against the bill without Stupak-language.

Rep. Jim Oberstar (D-Minn.), who formerly supported the Stupak amendment, announced Wednesday morning that he would now be supporting the Senate bill, saying he believed the Senate language sufficiently prevented federal money from subsidizing abortion.

Politico reported that Oberstar ironically slipped away from reporters into an elevator occupied by none other than Bart Stupak.

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