Back in August, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius announced new guidelines for preventive health care coverage for women. The proposals were made by experts representing the nonpartisan Institute of Medicine. Among the panel’s suggestions: assistance with breast-feeding, screening for domestic violence and free birth control.
The free birth control part of the proposals has attracted opposition from social conservatives and religious organizations and denominations. Now some of President Obama’s constituencies — Democrats, women, pro-choice advocates — are concerned that the administration is going to broaden the existing exemption of groups that may opt out of the birth control coverage.
As The New York Times reported this week, “Churches may already qualify for an exemption. The proposal being weighed by the White House would expand the exemption to many universities, hospitals, clinics and other entities associated with religious organizations.”
Supporters of the birth control coverage have pointed to the health benefits of contraception. They also have pointed to the millions of women who stand to lose if the contraception coverage is effectively removed from the new guidelines. And they have pointed to another issue involved in the potential broadening of exemptions:
Jon O’Brien, president of Catholics for Choice, said, “Allowing religious institutions to dictate the medical care available to their employees or religiously affiliated organizations to dictate what services their beneficiaries are allowed to access would encroach on the individual consciences of those seeking care and assistance.
“When codified into law, these ‘protections’ actually constitute state-sponsored discrimination against women based on where they are employed, where and how they buy health insurance and where they seek to receive care.”
The Obama administration is expected to announce its decision about the exemptions later this year.
In the meantime, there is an important message in all this for local citizens who have followed the arguments about the merger of University Hospital and Catholic Health Initiatives, and how that merger might impact women’s health care and reproductive issues. It’s yet another reminder of the pitfalls of mixing medicine, public institutions and agencies, and religious doctrine.
This article was originally published in the Louisville Courier-Journal.