More on Dionne, the USCCB, and the CHA

During a Q&A session about health-care reform on the Washington Post Web site this afternoon, columnist E. J. Dionne gave us a shout-out:

I believe that to reach their conclusion that the bill does fund abortion, the Bishops have to make a series of assumptions that I believe are highly questionable. The single best commentary on this question I have seen appeared in Commonweal magazine, the liberal Catholic publication (with which I have had a warm association for over 30 years). Commonweal ran an excellent editorial under the headline "Crying Wolf."

He also linked to a post he wrote for the WaPo's "PostPartisan" blog, following up on his "nuns vs. bishops" column from earlier this week. Sr. Mary Ann Walsh, the media director for the USCCB, had written a letter to the editor complaining about what she saw as inaccuracies in Dionne's column. She took issue with the paragraph I called out in this blog post, in which Dionne notes that Cardinal George's USCCB statement misstated the position of the CHA (in the process of repudiating it). Walsh says George was referring to the March 11 letter to Representatives from Sr. Carol Keehan (if you read the comments on my post you'll see further back-and-forth on that). In that letter (pdf file here), Keehan laid out the CHA's recommendations for the reconciliation bill. The last bullet point read, "The bill should ensure that the final, overall health reform package will provide no federal funding for abortion." I missed that when I first read the letter -- I'm grateful to commenter Jim Pauwels for reading more carefully than I did. Having seen it I can better understand how the USCCB managed to misapprehend the CHA's position. My guess is that the CHA subsequently spent time analyzing the existing language related to abortion funding and came to the determination that the Senate bill's provisions were adequate. (Of course, the CHA would likely have supported even stronger language that might be enacted through the reconciliation bill, if such a thing were possible. But closer study of the subject would also have told them that it wasn't.) Dionne's explanation, coming as it does directly from the CHA, is probably more reliable:

A CHA spokesman said that one of the statements she cites -- "The bill should ensure that the final, overall health reform package will provide no federal funding for abortion" -- was not a call for changes in the bill. Rather, it was aimed at insisting that any final bill maintain the ban on federal funding of abortion that the CHA believes is already included in the Senate bill.

"Cardinal George's statement reflected the March 11 letter from Sister Carol," Sr. Walsh wrote. Yes, to an extent. But a later statement of support from the CHA -- one that dealt specifically with the abortion question -- made clear that they felt the Senate Bill's abortion-funding provisions were acceptable as they stood. And so Cardinal George's statement does misrepresent the position of the CHA, however inadvertently. Both the USCCB statement and Keehan's statement are dated March 15 -- perhaps the USCCB never saw the later statement from the CHA before releasing its take. Still, surely they have seen it by now. Wouldn't it make more sense to say so -- "We regret the confusion; we are pleased to know the CHA doesn't expect us to buy any pigs in pokes. Still, we disagree with their assessment of the Senate Bill..."?Now it looks as though none of this will matter much in the end. But Dionne unpacks the details for anyone still keeping up at home.

Mollie Wilson O’​Reilly is editor-at-large and columnist at Commonweal.

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