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A Hijacking in Progress

How did S-Chip become a pro-life issue?

12:00 AM, Oct 16, 2007 • By RYAN T. ANDERSON
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IF YOU DON'T support using federal funds to help middle-class families get health insurance, then you can't call yourself pro-life. Or so says Catholics United, a "non-partisan organization dedicated to promoting the message of justice and the common good found at the heart of the Catholic Social Tradition."

Yesterday the group launched a series of radio ads attacking ten Christian members of Congress who voted against the Democrats' bill to reauthorize--and expand--the State Children's Health Insurance Program (S-CHIP). President Bush vetoed the bill earlier this month and the vote to override his veto will take place this week. Catholics United hopes to pressure these congressmen to reverse their vote by arguing that they have "compromised their pro-life voting records."

The ads, running on Christian and talk radio stations across the United States, close with this plea: "I'm the mother of three children, and I'm pro-life. I believe that protecting the lives of our children must be our nation's number one moral priority. That's why I'm concerned that Congressman X says he's pro-life but votes against health care for poor children. That's not pro-life. That's not pro-family. Tell Congressman X to vote for health care for children."

Some facts may help. S-chip is a Clinton-era program designed to assist poor children who don't qualify for Medicaid but whose families can't afford private insurance. For these children, the federal government provides subsidized health care.

The plan's ten-year charter has just expired and it was up to Congress to send to President Bush a bill reauthorizing the program. But when they did, they changed it radically. As Fred Barnes pointed out: "Rather than keep S-chip's cap at 200 percent of poverty ($41,300 for a family of four), the bill would raise it to 300 percent ($61,950) nationally and even higher in New Jersey ($72,285) and New York ($82,300)." In other words, they turned a program assisting truly poor children into a welfare program for the middle class.

President Bush vetoed the bill. He explained his decision to do so this way: "The policies of the government ought to be to help poor children and to focus on poor children, and the policies of the government ought to be to help people find private insurance, not federal coverage." According to the Urban Institute there are 689,000 children who are eligible for S-chip (under the current regulations) but do not currently receive it. Expanding the program to cover middle-class kids does nothing to get these truly poor children covered.

Now, I'm no health-care expert, but it seems to me that that there are legitimate arguments on both sides of the debate over this bill. Those who think a single-payer, federally funded health insurance program is ultimately the way to fix American health care will likely support the expansion of S-chip as a step in that direction. Those who think that this expansion will reduce competition in the health care market and create too many additional entitlements that the federal government can't fund (as millions of middle-class families who previously paid for private insurance for their kids opt in for this "free" one) have opposed it. This is what some of the congressmen that Catholics United is targeting have said--they support reauthorizing S-chip as it currently is, but the Democrats' plan for its expansion is a mistake.

Can't reasonable people of good will--including faithful Catholics--disagree about the wisdom of this bill? Not according to Catholics United, which presents the need to expand S-chip as if it were settled Catholic doctrine.

What this group has really done is to take its favored policy and baptize it in the name of the church. We can expect to see a lot more of this kind of thing in 2008, as Democrats search for religious voters and progressive religious organizations do the leg work. These groups claim to rise above the fray of partisanship, dedicating themselves to elevating the national conversation from the mud-slinging of the "religious right." But if you disagree with them about the prudence of this particular bill you're not really pro-life. Everything is now a moral issue. And there is no room for disagreement.

The pro-life jabs are particularly distasteful and destructive. They are nothing more than gross moral equivocation and the intentional hijacking of language. If every poverty-fighting bill under the sun becomes a "pro-life" bill, then the words lose all meaning. According to its website, Catholics United is a pro-life group dedicated to protecting the 1.3 million Americans killed every year by abortion. Yet it is leading the charge to eviscerate the clear meaning that the words "pro-life" have had in the American context for the past generation: opposition to legalized abortion coupled with support for mothers facing crisis pregnancies.

But no one is against health care for poor children. In this debate there is no pro-poor and anti-poor. Everyone is pro-poor. There simply are different ways of being pro-poor: one way emphasizes federal programs and nationalized care, and one favors private initiatives and community empowerment. Extending federally-subsidized state-run health insurance to children in families making eighty-thousand dollars a year is one way among many to meet the needs of children. Drawing largely from Catholic Social Doctrine, the principle of subsidiarity, the autonomy of the family, and John Paul II's moral critique of the welfare state, I happen to think it's a mistaken way. But I won't call you a bad Catholic or anti-life if you disagree.

Ryan T. Anderson is an assistant editor at First Things and a Phillips Foundation fellow. He is also the assistant director of the Program in Bioethics at the Witherspoon Institute of Princeton, NJ.