Catholics fight contraception mandate as deadline looms

By Marianne Medlin

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HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius particpates in the 2010 World Health Assembly in Geneva, Switzerland. Credit: Eric Bridiers-US Mission Geneva

Catholics across the U.S. are mobilizing against a proposed Health and Human Services mandate that requires health insurance to cover contraception and provides a narrow exemption for religious groups.

“Under the new rule our institutions would be free to act in accord with Catholic teaching on life and procreation only if they were to stop hiring and serving non-Catholics,” explained Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo, chairman of the U.S. bishops' pro-life committee.

“Although this new rule gives the agency the discretion to authorize a ‘religious’ exemption, it is so narrow as to exclude most Catholic social service agencies and healthcare providers,” he warned.

The HHS department announced federal rules on Aug. 1 that will require nearly all new health plans, including those of most religious agencies, to cover all government-approved methods of contraception as well as surgical sterilization.

The guidelines, which were created in response to the 2010 health care law, require new health insurance plans to cover what it calls “women’s preventive services.” These include breastfeeding support, domestic violence screening and contraception without charging a co-payment, co-insurance or a deductible.

The proposed mandate, announced by department secretary Kathleen Sebelius, offers exemptions only if a religious employer “has the inculcation of religious values as its purpose,” “primarily employs persons who share its religious tenets,” and “primarily serves persons who share its religious tenets.”

Bishops and Catholic organizations across the U.S. have reacted strongly against the proposition for weeks now, urging the faithful to oppose the measure by contacting HHS before the Sept. 30 deadline.

“The administration’s brazen attempt to attach the binding strings of its secularist agenda to something as basic as health insurance constitutes an unprecedented threat to individual and institutional religious freedom,” Archbishop Timothy P. Broglio of the Military archdiocese said on Sept. 23. 

“Never before has the government required private health plans to include coverage for such morally objectionable procedures as contraception and sterilization,” he noted. “In a free society, women and men of faith cannot be compelled to fund medical practices that violate their religious principles.”

On Sept. 21, Bishop Nicholas A. DiMarzio of Brooklyn added to criticism of the mandate, saying that U.S. Catholics should send a clear message “that pregnancy is not a disease.”

“We must insist that sterilization prescriptions and contraceptives be dropped from the list of preventative services that the federal government is mandating,” he emphasized. “This is especially important to exclude any drug that may cause an early abortion,” Bishop DiMarzio said, referring to contraceptives like Ella.

In recent weeks, other American bishops have also drawn attention to the potentially negative effects that the proposal could have on Catholic institutions. 

“Unintended or not, this mandate is an attack on Catholic beliefs and on the religious liberty of Catholics to adhere to their beliefs as they serve the community in which they live,” Bishop David A. Zubik of Pittsburgh wrote in a Sept. 15 letter to Sebelius.

The bishop noted that Catholic Charities in his diocese alone has served over 80,000 people last year
“without regard to the religious belief” of those they ministered to.

But “under this mandate, Catholic Charities of Pittsburgh would either be forced to cease to exist or restrict its employees and its wide ranging social services to practicing Catholics alone.”

In a Sept. 21 letter to HHS, the bishops of California reiterated Bishop Zubik's concern, saying that the Catholic Church “has an unparalleled record of serving the poor and needy through its religious institutions.”

However, the mandate “disregards the firmly held belief of Catholics and ethical and religious directives by which their religious organizations abide.”

The Catholic Health Association was also critical of the exemptions, with executive director Sr. Carol Keehan saying that she is “very concerned about the inadequacy of the conscience protections with respect to the coverage of contraception.”

“As it stands, the language is not broad enough to protect our Catholic health providers,” Sr. Keehan added.

“Catholic hospitals are a significant part of this nation's health care, especially in the care of the most vulnerable. It is critical that we be allowed to serve our nation without compromising our conscience.”

The proposed rules are set to take effect in August 2012.

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