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Faith in Obamacare?

Healthcare | The president appeals to religious leaders for help in his healthcare push, but questions about abortion remain

WASHINGTON-Amid August's simmering healthcare debate emanating from constituent meetings across the country, President Obama this week sought refuge among the nation's religious leaders, asking them to keep the faith in his party's medical initiatives.

During a conference call this week with a multi-denominational group of pastors, rabbis, and other liberal religious leaders, Obama tried to rally healthcare support by evoking the "moral convictions" of the estimated 140,000 listeners on the call.

"You know that this debate over healthcare goes to the heart of who we are as a people," Obama said. "Time and again men and women of faith have helped to show us what's possible when we're guided by our hopes and not our fears."

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During the call, Obama tied the need for a greater federal role in the nation's healthcare system to the belief that people have a "core ethical" obligation to be their brother's keeper. He pushed back against accusations that current healthcare legislation would create death panels, saying instead that the bill would set aside resources for voluntary counseling on end-of-life decisions. He also emphasized that individuals who like their current plan can keep it.

"I know there's been a lot of misinformation in this debate and there are some folks out there who are frankly bearing false witness," Obama complained.

But the question surrounding how current plans could lead to taxpayer-funded abortions is one claim that continues to dog the Obama administration.

Earlier in the call with the religious left, Melody Barnes, White House director of domestic policy, said it's a long-standing policy that federal funds won't be used for abortion coverage.

But even members of the religious left, including a growing group of African-American pastors, remain fearful that proposed insurance mandates would include a basic plan that must cover abortions.

Bishop Harry L. Jackson Jr., senior pastor of Hope Christian Church in the Washington, D.C., area, pulled no punches in a public appearance last week set to coincide with Obama's call.

"So don't tell me that this is moral or fair," he said. "It is genocidal in its impact and it will have a decimating effect on the whole nation."

At the heart of Jackson's argument is his belief that increased access to abortions services through insurance mandates will lead to more abortions. The African-American community, Jackson argues, already has higher abortion rates.

He called attempts by Democrats to get progressive ministers to support current healthcare legislation "politics at its worse."

But a group of religious leaders, led by Jim Wallis of Sojourners, have launched a healthcare blitz complete with television commercials, prayer services, and a "Nationwide Health Care Sermon Weekend."

"In the weeks ahead the nation will hear a steady, moral drumbeat from the faith community about God's desire for the health and healing of our nation, about the moral imperative for coverage of all Americans," said Wallis, referring to the interfaith "40 Days for Health Reform" initiative.

Setting off a religious healthcare debate that echoes in microcosm the ongoing healthcare argument among the nation's politicians, conservative religious groups are offering up their own efforts against the current proposals.

The Family Research Council is paying for ads, mainly in conservative-leaning states with moderate Democrats in Congress, that focus on the potential for federally funded abortions.

"The president knows very well that pro-abortion House and Senate committees rejected every single amendment to keep abortion funding out of the healthcare overhaul," said FRC President Tony Perkins.

Edward Lee Pitts
Edward Lee Pitts

Lee is WORLD's Washington Bureau chief. As a reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press, he was embedded with a National Guard unit in Iraq. He also once worked in the press office of Sen. Lamar Alexander.

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