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President Barack Obama’s pledge to continue the ban on the use of federal funds for abortion and to maintain conscience protections for health care workers in any health reform legislation was welcomed by officials of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the president of the Catholic Health Association.

Speaking after President Obama delivered his address on health care reform to a joint session of Congress on Sept. 9, Kathy Saile, director of domestic social development in the U.S.C.C.B. Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development, said the president’s address offered an encouraging sign that the administration has been listening to concerns raised by the bishops and pro-life organizations about abortion funding in any reform legislation. Citing the bishops’ long-standing belief that all Americans must have access to quality, affordable health care, Saile said the president’s speech must be followed by the appropriate changes in legislation currently pending in both houses of Congress. “Serious significant details need to be ironed out,” Saile said.

As currently written, the leading piece of legislation in the House of Representatives, America’s Affordable Health Choices Act of 2009, known as H.R. 3200, allows for some federal funding of abortion. Richard Doerflinger, associate director of the bishops’ Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities, said on Sept. 16 that the Senate Finance Committee legislation made public that day by Senator Max Baucus, Democrat of Montana, has “the same unacceptable language on abortion” as H.R. 3200.

Sister Carol Keehan, a member of the Daughters of Charity who is president and chief executive officer of the Catholic Health Association, said that while much work remains on amending the legislation, she was pleased by Obama’s speech. “There are too many people...who need this kind of [health care] assistance,” she said. “We believe it is long overdue. It is a moral and economic imperative and we were pleased to hear him put it in those terms.”

A group of pro-life legislators and organizations, led by Representative  Chris Smith, Republican of New Jersey, have challenged the president’s position that health care reform legislation would not include abortion funding. Joining Smith at a press conference on Capitol Hill on Sept. 10 was Representative Joe Pitts, Republican of Pennsylvania, one of the authors of a House amendment that would have ensured that the federal ban on abortion funding would remain in place. The amendment was defeated in committee.

“Such an explicit exclusion is missing from this bill,” Pitts said, pledging to reintroduce his amendment when the bill comes up for debate in the House. “This is not about the legality or the illegality of abortion. It is about keeping the government out of the business of promoting abortion as health care.”