.- The U.S. bishops spoke out on August 1 against federal rules requiring nearly all new health plans, including those of most religious agencies, to cover all government-approved methods of contraception as well as surgical sterilization.
“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,” said 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,” the cardinal noted.
The guidelines, announced by Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius on August 1, offer the exemption 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.”
Cardinal DiNardo wondered whether the federal government may actually “intend to pressure Catholic institutions to cease providing health care, education and charitable services to the general public,” by forcing the institutions to choose between following Catholic principles on the one hand, and serving non-Catholics on the other.
In a July 22 letter to Congress, the cardinal stated that “those who sponsor, purchase and issue health plans should not be forced to violate their deeply held moral and religious convictions in order to take part in the health care system or provide for the needs of their families or their employees.”
“To force such an unacceptable choice,” he wrote,“would be as much a threat to universal access to health care as it is to freedom of conscience.”
In his remarks on August 1, the bishops’ pro-life chairman also objected to Sebelius' statement that the “historic guidelines” would “help ensure women get the preventive health benefits they need.”
“Pregnancy is not a disease, and children are not a ‘health problem,’” Cardinal DiNardo said. “They are the next generation of Americans.”
He added that Catholics were “not alone in conscientiously objecting to this mandate,” which would include drugs such as the controversial drug “Ella.” While it was approved as an emergency contraceptive, the cardinal noted, Ella “can act like the abortion drug RU-486,” and “abort an established pregnancy weeks after conception.”
“The pro-life majority of Americans – Catholics and others – would be outraged to learn that their premiums must be used for this purpose.”
Cardinal DiNardo said it was “now more vital than ever” for Congress to pass the Respect for Rights of Conscience Act, so that “employers and employees alike will have the freedom to choose health plans in accordance with their deeply held moral and religious beliefs.”
That proposal, which nine Republican and Democratic senators introduced in the House on March 17, would amend the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (popularly known as “Obamacare”) to allow conscientious objectors to opt out of providing some medical treatments.
The conscience-protection proposal has made no progress in the House since its referral to a subcommittee on March 28.