A loud silence in health-care news

Light House in Stormy NightOnce again, it's time to tell that familiar parable about the old lighthouse keeper. Shall me?

Once there was a man who lived in a lighthouse on the foggy Atlantic. This lighthouse had a gun that sounded a warning every hour. The keeper tended the beacon and kept enough shells in the gun so it could keep firing. After decades, he could sleep right through the now-routine blasts. Then the inevitable happened. He forgot to load extra shells and, in the dead of night, the gun did not fire.

This rare silence awoke the keeper, who lept from bed shouting, "What was that?"

I like the lighthouse image, myself. If you prefer to meditate on the Sherlock Holmes story about the dog that didn't bark, that will work, too.

The point is that there has been a strange silence in the mainstream coverage of the health-care wars here on Capital Hill.

Let me ask this question: What religious body, in recent years or even decades, has been the most outspoken when it comes to demanding -- as a basic issue of social justice -- some kind of universal health-care coverage for all Americans? While it's possible to debate whether or not there is a definitive answer to that question, I think the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops would have to be right at the top of any list.

No one should doubt the commitment of the bishops to universal health-care coverage, of some kind. The problem, of course, is the clash between a secular approach to issues of birth, life and death and 2000 years worth of basic, core Christian doctrines. Abortion is the obvious point of conflict, but recent debates about health-care rationing, euthanasia (active or passive) and "conscience clauses" for medical professionals have shown that other crucial issues are in play.

But the issue of using tax dollars to fund abortions, or a government mandate for insurance companies to cover abortions, will not go away. That's obvious.

So, listen for the strange silence as you read the following Los Angeles Times report on that very issue? Here's a key passage:

The Hyde Amendment, passed in 1976, explicitly prevents the federal government from using tax dollars to fund abortion through Medicaid. But the reach of that law grows murkier if the government establishes its own competitive health insurance plan, or if it assists in creating a new market in which the public could sort through various private insurance plans. Both ideas could be included in the healthcare bill under consideration in Congress.

The Obama administration has tried to stay neutral on the matter.

"I think that it's appropriate for us to figure out how to just deliver on the cost savings and not get distracted by the abortion debate," President Obama said in an interview with CBS News last week.

When asked about abortion prohibitions in the bill, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said last week that "a benefit package is better left to experts in the medical field to determine how best and what procedures to cover."

That is precisely what worries antiabortion advocates.

This is a political story, of course, and most of the attention focuses on the efforts of pro-life Democrats (a niche within the now crucial Blue Dog coalition) to fight government funding of abortion. Taken alone, this story would not have shown up on my lighthouse/non-barking dog radar.

But there have been many others. Consider this recent Washington Post report that specifically focuses on the religion angle. I mean, check out this double-decker headline about these efforts by pro-Obama Catholics, mainline Protestants and progressive evangelicals:

Pulling Together On Health Care

Some community organizations and national faith groups are joining forces and setting aside differences to promote congressional action on what they consider a moral imperative.

CatholicVestmentsHere is a key passage. Once again, listen for the missing voice:

... (O)rganizing groups with disparate religious beliefs around a single goal has been challenging. The coalitions have had to tiptoe around sensitive issues, such as whether to support a government-run health insurance option and whether government-subsidized plans should pay for abortions. They have also had to deal with some clergy members' fears of offending their congregations by speaking out for universal health care.

"It's a pretty radical step for this congregation to get involved in the public arena," said the Rev. Jennifer Thomas, who is pastor of Immanuel Lutheran Church, a largely middle-class congregation in Kansas City, Mo., and is also a leader in one collection of grass-roots community and national religious groups. "A few members wonder how much the church should be involved."

The efforts have been coordinated closely with the Obama administration. A group of faith leaders met with President Obama in April, and administration officials took part last month in a rally at Freedom Plaza with representatives of more than 40 denominations and faith groups in support of comprehensive health coverage. ...

One coalition of mostly liberal and centrist religious groups was organized by Sojourners, an evangelical group; Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good; Faith in Public Life, a Washington think tank; and PICO National Network, an alliance of 1,000 U.S. congregations. It originally grew out of frustration that conservative Christian groups were dominating the national faith conversation on social issues.

Crucial information, of course.

But, again, notice that the Catholics in this effort are part of an independent group that keeps clashing with Catholic traditionalists and with some, repeat some, Catholic bishops. Please do not misunderstand my point: These groups have every right to make their voices heard and journalists need that point of view.

However, do you still hear the silence? Do you hear the empty gun, the non-barking dog? Where is the voice of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in these stories?

I know that there are resources on various websites. I plan on quoting some of them myself. I know about the articulate letter (.pdf) to Congress by Bishop William F. Murphy of the Domestic Justice and Human Development committee.

But I do have a basic question here: Are the journalists ignoring the bishops or are the bishops (and their gatekeepers) ignoring the journalists? This is one of the biggest religion-news stories of the year, especially in terms of its potential impact on Catholic health-care facilities and the people who work there. The church's views on health-care reform are consistent and articulate and, I might add, rather centrist. If the White House wants health-care reform, the U.S. Catholic bishops are a strategic force.

Did you hear that silence? What was that?

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