Several prominent evangelical leaders joined more than two dozen other pro-life Christian pastors, leaders and theologians to sign a statement Friday expressing support for alternative abortion language in the health care bill as proposed by Sen. Robert Casey (D-Pa.).
"As Christian leaders moved by our faith to protect life at all stages, we applaud Sen. Robert Casey's efforts to ensure that the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act prohibits federal funding of abortion, ensures conscience protections, and provides funding for long-needed support for pregnant women and children," stated the leaders, which include Florida megachurch pastor Joel C. Hunter, Christianity Today editor David Neff, National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference president Samuel Rodriguez, New Evangelicals founder Richard Cizik, and Evangelicals for Social Action president Ron Sider.
Casey's proposal, in addition to preventing government funding for abortion, also would expand economic support for individuals who want to adopt as well as for low-income women and children.
"Given that 73 percent of women who have an abortion cite the fact that they cannot afford to have a child as a contributing factor, these economic support measures are critical to reducing the number of abortions in America, a goal we wholeheartedly support," the faith leaders expressed in their statement of support.
"Expanding health insurance coverage to uninsured women and making it more affordable for millions more will very likely reduce the number of abortions in America as well," they added.
According to reports, Casey crafted the compromise language on abortion coverage in the Senate health care reform bill in order to get social conservative Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) to support the bill.
Nelson, who has stated that he will not support the health care bill if it includes government funding of abortions, said Saturday that he will support the reform bill with Casey's language, resulting in the Democrats having the needed 60 votes to avoid a Republican filibuster that would prevent a Senate vote.
"Change is never easy, but change is what's necessary in America today. That's why I intend to vote for cloture and for health care reform," the Nebraska Democrat told reporters on Saturday.
The Nebraska senator warned, however, that if the health bill changes in regards to abortion funding when the House and Senate leaders come together to resolve their differences, then he will withdraw his support.
Despite the strong support Casey's proposal has garnered, not every pro-life leader is happy with it. Douglas Johnson of the National Right to Life Committee said the Casey proposal is "entirely unacceptable" and that it is a "far cry" from the Stupak Amendment, which banned government funding of abortions in the House version of the health care bill.
The Casey proposal allows individuals to "opt out" of abortion coverage, while the Stupak amendment completely bans federal funding of abortion on demand.
"It is particularly offensive that the proposal apparently would make it the default position for the federal government to subsidize plans that cover abortion on demand, and then permit individuals citizens to apply for conscientious objector," Johnson said.
"This is an exercise in cosmetics – like putting lipstick on a legislative warthog."
Likewise, a spokesman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops found the Casey proposal unacceptable.
"Excluding elective abortions from overall health plans is not a privilege that individuals should have to seek as the exception to the norm," said Cardinal DiNardo, archbishop of Galveston-Houston and chairman of the Conference's Committee on Pro-Life Activities. "In all other federal health programs, excluding abortion coverage is the norm."
DiNardo added, "We continue to oppose and urge others to oppose the Senate bill unless and until this fundamental failure is remedied. And whatever the immediate outcome in the Senate, we will continue to work for health care reform which truly protects the life, dignity, conscience and health of all."
The Senate will start voting on parts of the health care bill on Monday, and could vote for the entire bill before Christmas.
The first and most critical test was set for about 1 a.m. Monday. Under Senate rules, Democrats needed 60 votes on three separate occasions to pass the measure.