The third part of my day yesterday, which began around 5:30 p.m. when the immigration march was over and ended at nearly 11 p.m. when the health care reform bill was passed by the House of Representatives 219-212, was spent picketing in support of health care reform with a group called Catholics United.
When I arrived there were a handful of us and a whole lot of anti-health care bill people of various persuasions and levels of civility. I heard one anti-health care protestor yell "scumbag" at Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr. and several others yell anti-gay slurs at Rep. Barney Frank. A few days earlier the press reported that some of the anti-health care folks had spat on African-American Congressional representatives and called them "n-----s".
We got a lot of "thumbs up" from supportive Congressional representatives as they were walking up to cast their votes. By the end of the evening my sign had been autographed by four of them: Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr. (IL), Rep. Raul Grijalva (AZ), Rep. Keith Ellison (MN), and Rep. Alan Grayson (FL). Rep. Grayson added a note. "Courage!", he wrote. He also spent a lot of time hanging out and talking with health care supporters. Although it was too dark at that point to get signatures, another representative who came up and spoke with me was Rep. Betty McCollum of Minnesota. She asked where I was from, said that she too was Catholic and would be supporting the legislation, and thanked us for being there. A very gracious person.
We did talk with some of the health care opponents. It was an interesting experience. Many right-to-lifers came up to me because of my sign. The approach was always the same: "What makes this health care bill Catholic?" "Well, the bill is not Catholic, nor is it Muslim, or Jewish or Hindu, etc..." "Well, your sign..." All my sign says is that I'm Catholic and I support the health care reform bill. Then they would say that they had read the bill and that there were hundreds of places where it supports abortion. I would then ask them to name one place in which the bill provides federal funding for abortion. Not a single right-to-lifer could name one single provision in the bill...because there aren't any. Further discussion with some of them revealed that basically anywhere in the bill that deferred any decision to Secretary Kathleen Sebelius was considered an "abortion" reference because of Sebelius's pro-choice record. These people don't trust Sebelius as far as they can throw her...but their entire opposition to the bill is on hypothetical, not real, grounds.
One woman from Iowa told me that I was not a good Catholic because I was disobeying our hierarchy. The bottom line is that the bishops and I both agree that abortion is a bad thing. Where we disagree is that they think this bill supports abortion and I don't. This is not disagreement with a teaching of the Catholic church; it is a different reading of one piece of legislation and on that point, the bishops and I can disagree without making me an unfaithful Catholic. This point escapes the fundamentalists in the right-to-life movement.
Interestingly, this same woman then spun off on a tangent saying that the bill violated the principles of subsidiarity. I have to say that this is one of the more esoteric arguments I have heard against health care reform. The woman then explained what she meant by subsidiarity and concluded -- almost to herself -- that the Church doesn't do enough to care for the poor at the local level. When I wholeheartedly concurred with her assessment, she immediately backed off, realizing that she had just violated her own rule against criticizing the Church. These people are a trip.
In the end, we carried the day. The bill is not perfect. It is a start towards providing more people with health insurance. It proves that the Obama administration can tackle a difficult, divisive issue and win. It proves that we can do the kind of legislative work to pull in people from a variety of political positions. All of the lessons from health care reform will serve us well as we move on to deal with immigration reform.