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Healthcare | Proposed Obamacare rule on contraceptive coverage threatens religious conscience protections

WASHINGTON-A new healthcare rule proposed by the Obama administration this month has renewed worries among faith-based groups that the changing landscape under Obamacare will bring increased threats to conscience protections.

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced Aug. 1 a proposed mandate that all insurance plans must cover the entire cost of prescription contraceptives. This requirement includes coverage of controversial abortion drugs such as Ella and Plan B at no additional cost to the patient.

That means that private insurance providers and other customers on the plan would be forced to share the cost for procedures they may find morally objectionable. It also means that, combined with the new mandate to buy insurance, it essentially will be illegal for individuals to not pay for contraceptives.

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While this may be a profit boon to drugmakers and contraceptive providers like Planned Parenthood, many religious groups, including those that once supported Obamacare, are fearful that it could force churches to financially support contraceptives.

The proposed regulation contains freedom of conscience protections that are so narrowly defined it would leave many religious organizations unsheltered. The protection, according to the rule, is provided to a religious employer that primarily employs and serves persons with similar religious beliefs.

That leaves out religious groups that serve their larger communities regardless of the faiths of those in need.

"HHS offered a fig leaf of conscience protection for certain churches that fulfill very specific criteria," said Jeanne Monahan, director of the Family Research Council's Center for Human Dignity.

President Obama last year pledged to respect religious rights, signing an executive order that the healthcare reform act wound not fund abortions or force faith groups and individuals to violate their beliefs.

The new rule proposal has angered Catholics such as Catholic University President John Garvey and Sister Carol Keehan, head of the Catholic Health Association and a supporter of Obamacare.

"The Obama administration is playing Catch-22 with religious employers," said Catholic League President Bill Donohue. "If they are too religious, Catholic social service agencies risk losing federal funds, but if Catholic hospitals are not sufficiently religious, they cannot be exempt from carrying health insurance policies that transgress their religious tenets."

Mercy Sister Mary Ann Walsh, the director of media relations for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, wrote that under the new rules "Catholic Charities agencies have to use money that would be better spent on feeding the poor to underwrite services that violate church teachings."

She added that the regulation, which now undergoes a 60-day public comment period, "conveniently ignores the underlying principle of Catholic charitable actions: We help people because we are Catholic, not because our clients are. There's no need to show your baptismal certificate in the hospital emergency room, the parish food pantry, or the diocesan drug rehab program."

Edward Lee Pitts
Edward Lee Pitts

Lee teaches journalism at Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa, and is the associate dean of the World Journalism Institute.


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