- Associated Press - Monday, November 15, 2010

BALTIMORE | The head of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops on Monday defended church leaders’ opposition to President Obama’s health care plan, arguing the overhaul will allow backdoor taxpayer subsidy for abortion.

The law walled off federal funds from being used for abortion, and an executive order signed by Mr. Obama just before it passed reaffirmed existing prohibitions on government-financed abortion. Still, the bishops and pro-life activists contend that neither would actually prevent tax money from being used.

“Our analysis of what the law itself says was correct, and our moral judgments are secure,” said Chicago Cardinal Francis George, president of the bishops’ conference. “Throughout this public debate, the bishops kept the moral and intellectual integrity of the faith intact.”

Cardinal George made the remarks in his final address as president of the group, which is holding its annual fall assembly this week in Baltimore. The conference runs through Thursday, but the bishops will move the gathering behind closed doors starting Tuesday afternoon.

The bishops had lobbied hard against Mr. Obama’s health care overhaul.

The final law allows federal subsidies for health insurance premiums to pay for abortion only in cases of rape or incest, or to save the life of the mother, a long-standing federal policy known as the Hyde Amendment.

Jenny Backus, a spokeswoman for the Department of Health and Human Services, said Monday that the new law did not remove the restrictions “and the president made clear that this restriction applied to all aspects of the new law in his executive order.”

Health insurance plans operating in new markets regulated by the government can choose to cover abortion. But they must do so with premiums collected separately from beneficiaries, and kept apart from taxpayer dollars. The language was a compromise, since most private insurance plans currently cover abortion. But abortion opponents argue the separation of funds is a distinction without a difference.

Cardinal George said critics who insisted the plan was too complicated for the bishops to understand were only trying to silence the church.

Sister Carol Keehan, head of the Catholic Health Association, broke with abortion opponents and the bishops by advocating for the bill.

Sister Keehan said the association had “major concern” about abortion and said the plan was not perfect, but supported it because it was a major first step in providing a universal health care system, something the church has advocated since the early 20th century. Several other women’s religious orders also backed the bill.

A spokesman for the Catholic Health Association would not immediately comment on the cardinal’s speech.

In his speech, Cardinal George said bishops should be deeply concerned about the “wound to the church’s unity” from the debate.

“I hope, trusting in the good will of all concerned, that means can be found to restore the seamless garment of ecclesial communion,” he said.