Kathleen Kennedy Townsend on Abortion

Nearly 50 years ago, President Kennedy delivered his famous "Catholic" speech in which he stated, "Whatever issue may come before me as president—on birth control, divorce, censorship, gambling, or any other subject—I will make my decision in accordance with these views, in accordance with what my conscience tells me to be the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressure or dictates. And no power or threat of punishment could cause me to decide otherwise."

These words still ring true today, and nowhere more so than in the current health-care debate. In recent months, much has been made over the question of the Roman Catholic faith, health care reform, and abortion.

The Roman Catholic Church and American Catholics have long believed that health care is a basic human right. The church has been a leader in the struggle to achieve quality, affordable coverage for all. They know that if the United States is ever going to climb out of its dismal standing as 30th in infant mortality in the world, women will need access to better prenatal care so that they can give birth to healthier babies. Yet as lofty ideas turn into actual policy details, the perennial question of how to deal with the issues of women's health—specifically abortion and federal funding—has come up. In solving this issue, perhaps we should heed the words of my uncle: what is in the national interest?

In this instance, the national interest is to pass meaningful health-care reform and not litigate abortion in the process. Too much is at stake to let differences over abortion derail real health reform.

The good news is that thoughtful minds have come together in the House of Representatives to craft a reasonable and abortion-neutral proposal in health reform. It is neither pro-choice nor anti-choice. It is simply pro–health care.

The current House health-care bill expressly prohibits federal funding of abortion and excludes the procedure from the minimum benefits package. It includes provisions that existing state laws and conscience laws will be respected. The House bill makes buying private health coverage affordable by offering tax credits to families with modest incomes. Moreover, the bill proposes a common-sense solution to ensuring that federal funds are not used for paying for abortion. The bill creates a mechanism for segregating private dollars from public funds to ensure that only private dollars go toward abortion coverage. This is a common practice in negotiating the role of religion in the public square. Similarly, Catholic schools receive federal funding for nonreligious services as long as those funds are separated from the school's religious work. If this solution is good enough for Catholic schools, then it is certainly good enough for health-care reform, and it reflects well on the tolerant and pluralistic society we have created. Most importantly, the bill does what the president promised health-care reform would do—it ensures that no one loses benefits they currently have.

Unfortunately, this reasonable approach is under attack from some Roman Catholic bishops who object even to the use of private dollars for women to exercise their conscience. They are determined to make abortion illegal, even if it derails health-care reform entirely—no matter the cost to women and children—and regardless of whether it would actually have any impact on the number of abortions in this country. (In fact, comprehensive health care could well reduce the number of unintended pregnancies and subsequent abortions.) In politics, this is called using abortion as a "wedge" issue. And it's simply not right. It is not right to jeopardize health care for the millions of women and children who need it most by inserting abortion politics into the debate. As a Catholic, I admire the bishops for their dedication to social justice, but cannot understand why they would put the health of so many women and children at risk when there is not a single federal dollar being spent on abortion services. It's a view I believe many of my fellow Catholics share. I urge the bishops to recognize that the House bill contains a familiar and genuinely American solution to the challenge of weighing differing religious beliefs in the realm of public policy.

As I've said before, I consider myself "pro-conscience." Women do not make the decision to have an abortion lightly, but it is absolutely critical that they have the means to make this decision and access to the care they need, no matter what their choice. Anything less would be turning the clock back on the progress we have made on advancing women's health.

We are tantalizingly close to achieving affordable quality health care for all Americans, a goal so dear to me, my family, and my uncle, Sen. Edward Kennedy, who himself was a strong advocate for women's rights and a devoted Catholic. It is deeply puzzling that the Roman Catholic Church could be against this critically important bill to ensure that millions of Americans, particularly low-income women and children, get the care they need. As Pope Benedict XVI said in his June Encyclical letter, "Charity is at the heart of the Church's social doctrine." Losing this opportunity is not in the national interest, and I firmly believe that it is not what the majority of Catholics want for our country and our fellow Americans.

Kathleen Kennedy Townsend on Abortion | Culture