In the News 2011

Bishops seek broader health care exemption for birth control


The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is calling on Congress to correct a “deficiency” in the health care reform law — a provision the organization is blaming for a new HHS mandate to cover contraceptive and birth-control services.

The letter, signed by Pro-Life Activities Committee Chairman Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo, comes in advance of an Energy and Commerce Health Subcommittee hearing Wednesday on HHS’s move to have health plans cover all FDA-approved contraceptives and birth control without cost-sharing. Some forms of birth control may prevent implantation of fertilized eggs.

HHS issued the interim final rules on contraceptive coverage in August, largely adopting recommendations from the Institute of Medicine. They include an exemption for some nonprofit religious employers, such as churches that are primarily devoted to “the inculcation of religious values” and serve and employ mostly people of their faith.

“It has been said that Jesus and the Apostles would not be ‘religious enough’ under such a test, as they served and healed people of different religions,” DiNardo wrote. “Under the new HHS mandate, Catholic organizations committed to their moral and religious teaching will have no choice but to stop providing health care and other services to the needy who are not Catholic, or stop providing health coverage to their own employees.”

The bishops have endorsed a House bill, Respect for Rights of Conscience Act introduced by Nebraska Republican Rep. Jeff Fortenberry and Oklahoma Democratic Rep. Dan Boren, which would allow any health plan or employer to drop coverage of services on religious or moral grounds.

“Now through the rulemaking process, because of their ideological objections, [President Barack Obama and Secretary Kathleen Sebelius] are undermining conscience exceptions [in a way] which seems to be most perniciously aimed at religious organizations,” Fortenberry said in an interview.

But abortion rights advocates say even the religious exemption included in the HHS rule is too broad.

In comments on the regulation, the National Women’s Law Center argued that the Affordable Care Act did not give HHS the legal authority to create any kind of a conscience clause.

“Nothing in the ACA, its language or legislative history, allows for any limitations regarding contraceptive coverage or any other preventive service required by the law or its regulations,” the group wrote. They said that in practice, it would mean that a woman would not get birth control covered if her employer objected or would have to pay for what others get for free.

Catholics for Choice President Jon O’Brien, who will be a witness at Wednesday’s hearing, said conferring conscience rights on institutions — as opposed to individual providers — crosses the line between religious freedom, to imposing their beliefs on others.

“I think what the bishops are doing is stretching an argument,” O’Brien said. “There is nothing in Catholic religion that you must deny employees coverage for contraception.”

He added that “the idea that an employer can dictate what services a worker receives” expands refusal clauses in ways that impinges on individuals’ religious freedom by imposing the morality of a health plan or employer on an employee.

This article was originally published by Politico Pro.

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