By Nancy Frazier O’Brien
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) – As the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops expressed disappointment, some Catholic groups reacted with enthusiasm to the passage of health reform legislation in Congress and the presidential executive order on taxpayer-funded abortion.

President Barack Obama signed the bill into law March 23.

The House approved the Senate-passed health reform bill by a 219-212 vote late March 21, then voted 220-211 in favor of a package of legislative fixes which had to go to the Senate for approval.

Mercy Sister Mary Ann Walsh, director of media relations for the USCCB, said the bishops “want health care reform” and “pray that President Obama’s promise that this bill will not fund elective abortions will be kept.”

Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, speaking for the USCCB, said in a statement March 23 that observers “have repeatedly insisted that there is no federal funding for abortion in this statute and that strong conscience protection has been assured. Analyses that are being published separately show this not to be the case, which is why we oppose it in its current form.”

In their last public comment before the House votes, the heads of the USCCB’s pro-life, migration and domestic policy committees urged House members to vote against the legislation.

“After a year of spanisive political combat, members of the House are told that they can advance health care reform only by adopting the Senate legislation as is, including these fundamental flaws,” said Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, Bishops John Wester and William Murphy, respectively, in their March 20 letter.

“The House leadership is ignoring the pleas of pro-life members for essential changes in the legislation. Apparently they will not even try to address the serious problems on abortion funding, conscience protection and fair treatment of immigrants,” they said.

Sister Carol Keehan, a Daughter of Charity who is president and CEO of the Catholic Health Association, said that “while not perfect, the reform law significantly expands coverage, especially to low-income and vulnerable populations, and is a tremendous step toward protecting human dignity and promoting the common good.”

Sister Carol said the bill “represents great progress in the long effort to make health care available and affordable to everyone in the United States.”

Patrick Whelan, president of Catholic Democrats, said passage of the health reform legislation was “an exhilarating accomplishment for us as Catholics.”

“Our Church has been at the forefront of the movement advocating universal health care for nearly a century,” he said. “We salute the courageous Catholic members of Congress who worked so hard to craft and pass this landmark legislation.”

Father Frank Pavone, national director of Priests for Life, said passage of the legislation showed that “you can’t pass the right kind of laws without the right lawmakers in office.”

“America has spoken to its lawmakers about their concerns. The lawmakers have spoken back. Now it’s our move again,” he added. “This law will be challenged in many ways. And it’s time to prepare for November’s elections, so that the changes the American people see fit to make can be made.”

Much of the post-vote analysis focused on whether an executive order promised by President Barack Obama in an eleventh-hour deal to obtain the votes of Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., and other pro-life House Democrats would achieve its stated purpose of ensuring that no federal funds be spent on abortion

Timothy Stoltzfus Jost, a law professor at Washington and Lee University School of Law, said in a legal analysis that executive orders “independently have the force of law” and are “not subject to legal challenge” as long as the president “is acting within his constitutional authority as the chief executive of the nation’s executive departments and not acting directly contrary to a federal statute.”

But in a March 21 memo to congressional staffers, Richard Doerflinger, associate director of the U.S. bishops’ Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities, said that “the statutory mandate construed by the courts would override any executive order or regulation.”

“This is the unanimous view of our legal advisers and of the experts we have consulted on abortion jurisprudence,” he said. “Only a change in the law enacted by Congress, not an executive order, can begin to address this very serious problem in the legislation.”

The National Right to Life Committee said the promised executive order “was issued for political effect” and “does not correct any of the serious pro-abortion provisions in the bill.”

“The president cannot amend a bill by issuing an order, and the federal courts will enforce what the law says,” it said.

Morna Murray, president of Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, said the bill would “maintain long-standing restrictions on federal funding of abortions” and the executive order would “provide additional valuable assurances on these funding restrictions.”

Regarding the Health Care Reform Act

Statement from Michael Ciccocioppo, executive director of the Pennsylvania Pro-Life Federation

I believe that the Health Care Reform Bill as passed is the worst thing to come along since Roe v. Wade. It’s going to fund abortion in many different ways, which I’m afraid will give more people an excuse to abort their children rather than give birth to them.

I think this is a very sad time for America. I was very proud of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference and the Pennsylvania Catholic Health Association for standing with us and the National Right to Life Committee in opposing this legislation. I am ashamed of the many Catholic congressional leaders who voted in favor of this bill.

I don’t think the executive order (to exclude abortion) is worth the paper it is written on. An executive order does not trump a statute. I think the president duped (Congressman) Bart Stupak and his friends.