If you've followed the debate over abortion rights and health care reform, you're familiar with the role played by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The Bishops want to prohibit all insurance coverage within the new insurance exchanges, on the theory that some people might use federal subsidies to buy those policies, thereby allowing federal funding of abortion. When moderates have suggested compromises, under which the funds would technically be separated, the Bishops rejected that language as unacceptable.

Members of Congress who oppose abortion rights have been taking their cues from the Bishops on this issue. That's one reason why the Stupak amendment, which mirrored the Bishops' stance, ended up in the House bill. And it may be one reason why Senator Ben Nelson, who's also consulting anti-abortion groups, just announced he's unhappy with compromise language put forward by Pennsylvania Senator Bob Casey.

But now another key actor is stepping into the fray: The Catholic Hospital Association. And they seem far less rigid about this than the Bishops do, at least according to this position statement:

The Catholic Health Association is pleased to learn of the work being done to improve the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2009. As we understand it, the Senate intends to keep the President's commitment that no federal funds will pay for abortions and in addition, provide significant new support for pregnant women.

While we have yet to see the manager's amendment or Senator Robert Casey's final abortion amendment language, we are encouraged by recent deliberations and the outline Senator Casey is developing. It is our understanding that the language now being written would prohibit federal funding of abortion, ensure provider conscience protection and fund programs to provide supportive care to some of the most vulnerable pregnant women in our society.

Especially now that a public health insurance option is no longer on the table, we are increasingly confident that Senator Casey's language can achieve the objective of no federal funding for abortion. We urge Congress to continue its work toward the goal of health reform that protects life at all stages while expanding coverage to the greatest possible number of people in our country. We look forward to reviewing the final language these improvements contemplate.

I don't imagine the Hospital Associations speaks to, or for, Catholics with the same authority that the Bishops do. But surely their opinion counts for something, particularly since they end up dealing with the misery that un- and under-insurance causes.