By John Jalsevac

October 8, 2009 ( – Three U.S. bishops have written to Congress expressing their “disappointment” that the healthcare bills currently being considered in Congress have not addressed the issue of federal funding of abortion, and warning that unless their concerns are addressed, the U.S. bishops will have to oppose “vigorously” the health care reform legislation.

Writing on behalf of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), the three bishops said in a letter released today, “We are writing to express our disappointment that progress has not been made on the three priority criteria for health care reform that we have conveyed previously to Congress.”

“In fact,” they point out, “the Senate Finance Committee rejected a conscience rights amendment accepted earlier by the House Energy and Commerce Committee.”

The three signatories of the letter, Cardinal Justin Rigali, Bishop William Murphy and Bishop John Wester, chair the Committees on Pro-Life Activities, Domestic Justice and Human Development, and Migration, respectively, for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). They had previously sent a letter to the senate on September 30, outlining their concerns with the healthcare overhaul plan.

The bishops go on to threaten that, if the healthcare legislation fails to meet the core principles outlined by them in their previous communications, “we will have no choice but to oppose the bill.”

Those core principles include ensuring that federal funds do not pay for abortions and the inclusion of strenuous conscience protections. The bishops also emphasize the need for affordable care, and for the legislation to provide coverage for legal immigrants.

“We sincerely hope that the legislation will not fall short of our criteria,” write the bishops. “However, we remain apprehensive when amendments protecting freedom of conscience and ensuring no taxpayer money for abortion are defeated in committee votes. If acceptable language in these areas cannot be found, we will have to oppose the health care bill vigorously.”

In an interview yesterday, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs responded to the bishops' previously stated concerns by prolonging the White House tactic of simply denying the abortion mandate in the healthcare legislation.

When asked about the bishops' statement from their September 30th letter, saying that the health reform bills still have not barred federal funds from paying for abortion, Gibbs responded simply, “Well, I don't want to get me in trouble at church, but I would mention there's a law that precludes the use of federal funds for abortion that isn't going to be changed in these health care bills.”

Gibbs was presumably referring to the Hyde Amendment, which has traditionally prevented federal funds from paying for abortions. However, legal analysts have pointed out that the health care legislation includes amendments, such as the Capps-Waxman Amendment, that specifically allow federal funds to pay for abortions under the plan.

Douglas Johnson, legislative director for the National Right to Life Committee (NRLC), the national federation of right-to-life affiliates, said in response:  “Gibbs' statement is one more proof, if any more were needed, that the White House is actively engaged in a political smuggling operation – an attempt to achieve funding of elective abortion by the federal government, cloaked in smokescreens of contrived language and outright deception.”

In their September 30 letter to the Senate, the three bishops, representing the USCCB, had written, “No one should be required to pay for or participate in abortion.”

“It is essential” they said, “to clearly include longstanding and widely supported federal restrictions on abortion funding/mandates and protections for rights of conscience.”

But so far, they observed, “the health reform bills considered in committee, including the new Senate Finance Committee bill, have not met President Obama's challenge of barring use of federal dollars for abortion and maintaining current conscience laws. These deficiencies must be corrected.”

The bishops also emphasized the need for strenuous conscience protections for healthcare workers.

“For decades,” they wrote, “…Congress has respected the right of health care providers not to be involved in any abortions or abortion referrals, and has respected moral and religious objections in other areas as well.

“The Weldon amendment to the Labor/HHS appropriations act, approved by Congress each year since 2004, forbids any federal agency or program, and any state or local government receiving federal funds under the Act, to discriminate against individual or institutional health care providers or insurers because they decline to provide, pay for, provide coverage of, or refer for abortion.”

They concluded, “Health care reform legislation should reflect longstanding and widely supported current policies on abortion funding, mandates, and conscience protections because they represent sound morality, wise policy, and political reality.”