12/14/2010 11:30 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Real Scrooge This Christmas? Cardinal George and the Pro-Birth Agenda

Wishes don't come true often but for 35 million Americans, health care reform is about as close as it gets to a Christmas miracle.

Apparently Cardinal George didn't get the memo.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, until recently under the leadership of Chicago's own Cardinal Francis George, officially opposes health care reform (Merry Christmas, the poor and forgotten of America). This, my friends, is crazy.

They don't oppose the legislation because it fails to cover all Americans, or because it specifically excludes legal and illegal immigrants, most of whom are Catholic. Their reasoning is that of course, some how, some way, abortions might be paid for by the federal government; this despite the fact that the legislation and a related executive order signed by President Obama maintain federal prohibitions on funding abortion except in cases of rape, incest, or danger to the mother's life -- restrictions that have been in place since 1976.

Like so many of my generation, I'm a lapsed Catholic, and every so often the actions of the Church remind me why I cannot in good conscience support an institution that is prioritizes the facade of piety over the well-being of its followers. The systematic cloaking of child abuse is a most egregious example, but opposing the expansion of health care for poor Catholics is pretty darn harmful too. I have to say that in my experience the people of the Catholic faith are wonderfully good, but the bishops, cardinals and Vatican rarely lift a finger for their followers.

I'm not going to make a case against the Catholic Church's (ir)rationale on health care because they've been quite esoteric as to their reasoning and have, as of yet, failed to produce any hypothetical scenario in which federally-funded abortions would become legal under health care reform. My beef with them here isn't on the abortion issue anyhow; it's the Catholic Church leadership's pro-birth agenda that gets me down. Confused? You should be.

Over the past few decades it has become abundantly clear that the hierarchy of the Catholic Church is interested in birth and not life (an idea originally postulated by a rad Benedictine nun named Sister Joan Chittister). Pro-life would connote support for all living beings, born and unborn, but somewhere along the lineage the definition of life was abridged to include only those residing in wombs. Catholic leadership is so myopically focused on the unborn that it fails to protect the health and well being of the vast majority of human life, which happens to be those of us who are post-birth. Sure, the Church has its charitable arms where priests, nuns and laity do the hard work of helping the poor, but only in the cases of abortion or gay rights will it jump into the political realm and attempt to influence political decisions.

Just take a moment and rack your brain - what is the stated political platform of the Catholic Church and what actions has it taken on anything beyond banning abortion and homosexuality? Just think about all the public policies that overlap with the moral ethos of the Catholic faith, and the lack of involvement from the Church on each of these issues. Financial regulatory reform to protect Americans from Wall Street greed? Nothing. Welfare and unemployment benefits? Silent. Paying Americans a living wage for their work? Not a moral issue. Expanded housing and shelter funding? Zilch. Equitable tax policies that would demonstrate this country's commitment to helping the poor survive? Don't even joke about it.

And then there is health care. The Affordable Care Act (ACA) is, in fact, the most pro-life piece of legislation to come out of Congress since the creation of Medicare and Medicaid - that is if you count life over one minute old, and I believe that we should. Those lepers that Jesus healed in the Bible - they'd be all about health reform, and my guess is that Jesus would be too (though I don't speak for him, that's someone else's job).

Currently an estimated 45,000 Americans die every year because they have no health care coverage, but the ACA changes that. After full implementation, the ACA will expand coverage to an estimated 35 million people, many of whom are low-income and/or living with a pre-existing condition that currently precludes them from obtaining any sort of health insurance, even if they can afford sickeningly high premiums. The ACA also increases funding to community health centers that treat low-income and uninsured Americans; requires insurance companies to cover 100% of the costs for several preventative services like mammograms and vaccinations; requires coverage for regular well-baby and well-child doctors visits for children from birth to the age of 21.

I work in the world of HIV/AIDS, so I see what the impoverished and sick of the United States, the wealthiest nation on earth, face on a daily basis. The people I work for can't get insurance because of pre-existing conditions and they can't get on Medicaid because you must be physically disabled to be eligible, and so many must wait until they are dying of AIDS to have access to care. Some public programs such as the AIDS Drug Assistance Program (ADAP) do exist, but are limited in their ability to offer medications to HIV-positive people because of budget cuts. Currently thousands of people are on waiting lists for ADAP, with weakening immune systems, dwindling CD4 counts, getting sicker each day and praying that health care reform will come to fruition, the wishes of their own religious leaders be damned.

"That which you did to the least of my brothers, you did unto me" is written all over this legislation, but if Cardinal George had his way this Christmas, health care reform would be repealed. What does it say about the Catholic Church leadership that it is opposed to this law and what does it say about our country that 40% of Americans want it repealed? Sadly, health care reform is just one more example of the Catholic Church's leadership failing to be truly pro-life. When the Church joins the fight to expand health care for all, then we can talk about life. Until then, the label "pro-life" is a misleading and inappropriate moniker.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the AIDS Foundation of Chicago.