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Jack Sisson's Life Ethics Blog

We must find new ways through many ethical issues, especially regarding bioethics, medical ethics, and criminal justice. Jack Sisson's 'Life Ethics' blog focuses on numerous areas of concern, including the philosophical and ethical dilemmas surrounding stem-cell research, abortion, medical research, and health care.


The Chicago Tribune
Without a vote to spare, Democrats pushed their healthcare legislation over its first obstacle on the Senate floor Saturday, as the chamber voted to begin formal debate of a sweeping measure to guarantee medical coverage for all Americans.

The 60-39 vote backed by all 58 Democrats and two independents - overcame a Republican-led filibuster designed to block consideration of the bill and it kept up momentum behind President Obama's top legislative priority.

Although it was only procedural, the dramatic balloting during which Senators voted from their desks in front of a packed gallery of spectators also set the stage for a historic healthcare debate that is expected to begin after Thanksgiving and consume the Senate for the remainder of this year.

"You cannot wish away a great emergency by closing your eyes and pretending it doesn't exist," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said on the Senate floor just before the vote. "There is an emergency and it exists, and it exists now. The right response to disagreement is not dismissal. It's discussion. … Let us debate our differences."

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Washington Post

Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.) appeared Saturday to secure the 60 votes needed to move an $848 billion health-care reform bill to the Senate floor for debate, as the last two holdouts in his Democratic caucus said they will not join in a Republican filibuster.

After days of indecision, Sens. Blanche Lincoln (Ark.) and Mary Landrieu (La.) declared that they will vote to advance the bill despite reservations. Reid now expects all 60 members of his caucus to vote yes at 8 p.m. Saturday, clearing the way for amendment deliberations to begin after the Thanksgiving recess.

Reid is aiming for final passage before Christmas. The House has already passed its version of the bill.

In announcing her support for bringing the bill to the Senate floor, Lincoln told her colleagues: "The truth is this issue is very complex. There is no easy fix and it's imperative that we build on what's already working in health care in America."

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The New York Times

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, fresh off their abortion victory on health care legislation in the House, has joined the battle in the Senate and called for the same amendment that it pushed through the House.

In a letter Friday (PDF) to senators, the bishops said that the language in the current bill put forth by Democratic leaders violates the principle that federal funds should not be used for abortions. If it is not amended, they said, the bill should be opposed.

The letter appears to be the opening salvo in what is expected to be a major battle over abortion in the Senate in the coming weeks.

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The Christian Post
President Obama in a rare interview appearance on Fox News this week said language used in the pro-life Stupak amendment in the House health care bill is not balanced.

Fox correspondent Major Garrett asked Obama during an interview that aired Wednesday night if he would sign a health care bill that included the Stupak language.

Obama initially gave a long-winded response saying, “I think there is a balance to be achieved that is consistent with the Hyde amendment – what existed before we reformed health care."

“I believe in the basic idea that federal dollars shouldn’t pay for abortions,” he continued. “But I also think we shouldn’t restrict women’s choices, so, I think there’s some negotiations going on, not just on the Democratic side, but I think among people of good will on both sides, to see if we can arrive at something that meets that criteria and I’m confident we can do that.”

Garrett then pressed Obama for a yes or no answer on if he thought the Stupak language “strike that balance.”

“Not yet,” Obama said.

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The Detroit News

The fight over federal funding for abortion moved to the Senate on Thursday as opponents targeted provisions that are not as restrictive as one written by a Michigan lawmaker into the version passed by the House.

Provisions that don't include a ban on federal funding aren't acceptable to anti-abortion lawmakers, Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Menominee, said Thursday, adding the fight will likely have to be resolved in a House-Senate conference committee.

"The leaders of the Congress should listen to the American people. The American people want health care reform, but they want it without federal funding of abortions," said Stupak, whose last-minute amendment to the House bill two weeks ago set off a firestorm of criticism and pressure on the Senate to follow suit.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's bill would permit abortions in a government-run plan if the Health and Human Services secretary could ensure that no federal money is used, and anyone receiving federal subsidies would have to pay for an abortion with her own money. A woman receiving federal subsidies could buy a private plan that covers abortions, but would have to use her own money to pay for such a procedure.

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The Catholic Church's heavy-handed lobbying to remove abortion coverage from any major health care reform is still center stage as the Senate readies to take its first vote on the issue. Here's a sampling from newspapers around the country:

The PressDemocrat (Santa Rosa, CA.)
From parish pews to the halls of Congress, Catholics are caught up in a debate that challenges their core beliefs on two central tenets: health care for all and protecting the unborn.

The internal tensions are being met with equal amounts of public scrutiny over the church’s efforts to influence health care legislation, bringing harsh criticism from some who accuse church leaders of overstepping their authority.

The church’s official position, advocated by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, is that federal insurance subsidies contained in any health care legislation be prohibited from funding elective abortion.

Continuing reading.

The New York Post President Obama’s effort to reform the health-care system could blow up in a holy war with the nation’s Catholic bishops over the historically hot-button issue of abortion.

The Catholic Church claims the Senate bill introduced by Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) would permit insurance coverage for certain abortions.

By comparison, the church applauds a measure passed by the House of Representatives that calls for a blanket ban on abortion for health plans that receive federal subsidies.

The Senate measure — which has gained the support of the White House — would allow a new government health-insurance plan to cover abortions and let private insurers that receive federal subsidies offer plans that include abortion coverage.

But women seeking abortions would have to foot the bill from their premiums — and not use federal dollars.

In an address that opened the semiannual meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Cardinal Francis George, archbishop of Chicago, implored 300 fellow bishops to "look for ways to strengthen church unity."

"Since everything and everyone in Catholic communion is truly interrelated," George said, ". . . an insistence on complete independence from the bishop renders a person or institution sectarian, less than fully Catholic."

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Associated Press

The White House is on a collision course with Catholic bishops in an intractable dispute over abortion that could blow up the fragile political coalition behind President Barack Obama's health care overhaul.

A top Obama administration official is praising the new Senate health bill's attempt to find a compromise on abortion coverage — even as an official of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops says Sen. Harry Reid's bill is the worst he's seen so far on the divisive issue.

The bishops were instrumental in getting tough anti-abortion language adopted by the House, forcing Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., to accept restrictions that outraged liberals as the price for passing the Democratic health care bill.

Reid, D-Nev., now faces a similar choice: Ultimately, he will need the votes of a handful of Democratic senators who oppose abortion to get his bill through. Republicans hoping to block the health bill in the Senate are relishing the Democrats' predicament.

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Boston Globe

Representative Louise Slaughter has a consistent record advocating abortion rights. So the New York Democrat was stunned recently to receive, for the first time, a letter from a Catholic diocese in western New York, demanding that she explain her vote this month against a health care amendment prohibiting insurance companies from paying for abortions.

“I’m not Catholic. But they [asked] me to explain myself,’’ said Slaughter, who has not answered the request.

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Last Tuesday's Wall Street Journal examined the fallout in the Senate from the House's adoption of Rep. Bart Stupak's amendment.
A key Democratic senator said Monday he will follow House colleagues in insisting on tough antiabortion language before he votes for a health overhaul bill, causing new headaches for Senate leaders even before debate on a final bill begins.

Leading Senate Democrats are seeking to prevent the abortion issue, which almost capsized the health-care debate in the House, from engulfing the Senate...Senate Democrats need 60 votes to overcome an expected filibuster, and all 40 Republicans are likely to oppose the bill. So the votes of every other Democrat and independent -- are required for passage. Abortion hasn't been a big issue in Senate health talks so far. But Democratic leaders expect that to change after its eruption among House Democrats over the weekend.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) capitulated at the 11th hour to Rep. Bart Stupak (D., Mich.), who led a group of anti-abortion Democrats. Mr. Stupak introduced an amendment blocking the bill's government-administered insurance plan from covering abortion and forbidding people who receive government subsidies from buying policies covering abortion through a new insurance exchange.
For one thing, I can't believe it could be Democrats who might derail healthcare reform. On the other hand, I can believe (but wish I couldn't) that we're still arguing about abortion and that it's once again the issue of the hour.

Jack has believed for years that the debate could be settled if people would only accept that life does not begin at conception, but rather it begins with the onset of higher brain function, about 70 days after conception. Jack bases his belief on the widely accepted standard of pronouncing a person clinically dead after the cessation of all brain function. He (and Dr. Hans-Martin Sass) just walked that idea backward.

Now seems as good a time as any to reprint our original post to this blog, which spells out Jack's position (and contains a link to his original argument as it appeared in the "National Catholic Reporter.")
In 1986, my boss, Jack Sisson, published an article in the "National Catholic Reporter" in which he argued that human life does not begin in utero until the onset of higher brain function. At the time, he was a pro-life Catholic layman who recognized that a significant number of Catholics had divergent opinions on abortion.

Then, in 1989, Dr. Hans-Martin Sass of the Kennedy Institute of Ethics at Georgetown University published a paper titled "Brain Life and Brain Death: A Proposal for a Normative Agreement." Sass first looked at established definitions of brain death, and reasoned that society could reach a consensus for protecting embryonic life by applying similar criteria for brain life.

Sass identified two levels of brain development. Cortical Brain Life I occurs with post-mitotic stationary neurons forming the early cortical plate -- 54 days after conception. Cortical Brain Life II recognizes the beginning of cortical neuro-neuronal synapes -- 70 days after conception. Sass hoped for a moral consensus by recognizing Brain Life II (the 70th day) as the point after which embryonic research would be unacceptable. Before that time, research, and presumably abortions, would be acceptable.

Many other philosophers, scientists and bioethicists have considered brain development in determining when to designate life in the womb as "human." As early as 1985, J.M. Goldenring presented an argument similar to Sass's -- that human life begins with the onset of brain life at eight weeks gestation.

Today, we can pronounce a person clinically dead if there is a complete and irreversible cessation of brain activity, or brain death. Jack's question: if we can accept brain death as the end of human life, why can't we similarly accept brain life as the beginning of human life?

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The Colorado Independent 11/13/09

Is the Catholic Bishops' strong opposition to a healthcare reform bill that does not exclude abortion strictly a moral stance, or is it something more?
Pass the kind of national health reform that brings in the vast ranks of the uninsured and you increase the number of consumers in the health care industry.

Although the bishops’ stand against health reform can not be separated from theology, its ties to Church economics are also very real. The Catholic Church with its hundreds of hospitals and clinics and nursing facilities is in the health care business in a major way. In 2006, Americans spent $84.6 billion on Catholic-affiliated health care. Fact is, the bishops have more at stake in this debate than principle.

The Stupak Amendment, which is designed to cut abortion out of what would be the dominant health-care plan in the nation, may or may not be a moral victory. What it is, indisputably, is genius business strategy, the kind other industries dream of effecting on Capitol Hill.
According to Wendy Norris, a freelance reporter and editor in Denver,
The scale of the church's involvement in the rapidly growing $2.5 trillion dollar American health care industry is staggering.

What the Stupak-Pitts amendment does for the Catholic health care system is omit a competitive advantage secular and other religiously-affiliated hospitals without doctrinal restrictions can use to simultaneously market their services to both the expected influx of newly insured patients and the outpatient medical professionals who will treat them.

By restricting insurance coverage of women's reproductive health care, the competitive barriers faced by Catholic institutions will be eliminated — provided the amendment is not stripped out of the final bill that emerges from House-Senate health care reform conference committee. Which is why pro-choice advocates should expect nothing short of a full-frontal attack by the Vatican on conservative Senators.
Norris further says that "one in six patients are cared for in 624 Catholic hospitals scattered throughout the U.S. in 2006, according to the Catholic Health Association. The church also operates more than 800 post-acute care, senior living and skilled nursing centers across the nation. All told, $84.6 billion was spent on Catholic church-affiliated care."

That's a lot of money, and if healthcare reform adds 36 million uninsured Americans to the ranks of insured, they will, according to Norris, add millions of dollars more to hospital coffers in the short term and have the potential for adding trillions in billable services over their lifetimes.

Looking at the Catholic Church's intense lobbying on the healthcare bill through a business lens shines a very different light on its motives, and should make a lot of people really angry. Let's hope some of them are our Representatives who will see through the Church's moral grandstanding and realize there's something more going on here. Then let's hope they have the guts to do something about it.

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