By Russell Shaw
Does the bishops' conference know something about health care and abortion that the rest of us don't? Otherwise it's difficult to say what to make of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' response to President Obama's speech to Congress last week. Even as the rest of the prolife community was continuing its criticism of abortion coverage in the plan, USCCB issued a news release welcoming Obama's claim that publicly funded abortion won't be part of it.
Particularly interesting from this point of view were remarks by Richard Doerflinger, associate director of the bishops' prolife office. Doerflinger, an old hand on these things, said: "We especially welcome the president's commitment to exclude federal funding of abortion, and to maintain existing federal laws protecting conscience rights in health care. ... We will work with Congress and the administration to ensure that these protections are clearly reflected in the new legislation, so no one is required to pay for or take part in abortion as a result of health care reform."
It's hard to say exactly what that means, but it could mean the bishops won't fight very hard to keep abortion out of the health care plan provided it includes some sort of conscience clause they can live with. It may also mean that the bishops have received private assurances from the White House that if they play ball on health care, that's what they'll get. If this is what's going on, however, it's a risky game at best.
Significantly, USCCB didn't roll out any bishops to react to Obama's remarks. Instead that job was given to staff — Doerflinger and Kathy Saile, director of the conference's domestic social development office. This suggests the organization is hopeful of getting what it considers a satisfactory deal on abortion from the White House but isn’t really sure. With good reason perhaps.