Pro-life Democrats predict broad religious exemption from contraception mandate
Kristen Day / President Barack Obama
Kristen Day / President Barack Obama

.- Though Catholics fear their institutions’ religious freedom is at risk, pro-life Democrats are predicting that the federal government will create a broader religious exemption to federal mandates requiring contraception coverage in all new health care plans.

“I would have never voted for the final version of the bill if I expected the Obama administration to force Catholic hospitals and Catholic colleges and universities to pay for contraception,” former Pennsylvania Congresswoman Kathy Dahlkemper said Nov. 21.

“We worked hard to prevent abortion funding in health care and to include clear conscience protections for those with moral objections to abortion and contraceptive devices that cause abortion. I trust that the President will honor the commitment he made to those of us who supported final passage.”

Kristen Day, executive director of Democrats for Life, also expressed confidence that the Obama administration will provide a sufficient exemption.

“The administration has no intention of forcing Catholic institutions to provide insurance coverage for services that are directly in opposition to their moral beliefs. It does not make any sense from a public policy perspective and it certainly is not smart politically to alienate Catholic voters,” she said.

Day charged that the Obama administration is “unfairly under attack by Catholic conservatives who are using the proposed final rule to spread anti-Obama sentiment to lay Catholics.”

On Aug. 1 the Department of Health and Human Services announced regulations for preventive care as required by the 2010 health care legislation. The rules mandate that new health care plans cover all FDA-approved sterilizations and contraception, including contraceptives with abortion-causing effects.

The regulations accompanied a proposed exemption only for religious employers whose primary purpose is the inculcation of religious values and who primarily employ and serve those who share their religious tenets. Catholic bishops and scholars have said the exemption would not include most Catholic health care systems, charitable agencies and institutions of higher education.

Democrats for Life said that the health care legislation itself proposed to continue to allow employers an exemption to mandatory contraception coverage if the employer objected on moral or religious grounds.

“This was part of the agreement reached by pro-life Democrats,” the organization said Nov. 19. “The issue for pro-life Democrats is that certain types of birth control cause abortions of new embryos.”

Other commentators have said that Health and Human Services’ narrow proposed exemption uses language originally intended to target Catholics.

The exemption originated in a California debate about a state-level contraception mandate, William J. Cox, president and CEO of the California-based Alliance of Catholic Health Care, told a Nov. 2 hearing of the Energy and Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Health.

Cox said the American Civil Liberties Union “painstakingly crafted” the definition to “specifically exclude religious institutional missions like health care providers, universities and social service agencies.”

During the debate, the then-head of Planned Parenthood in California said the wording was designed to close the “Catholic gap” in contraceptive coverage, Cox reported.

Pro-abortion rights groups like Emily’s List and NARAL are seeking to preserve the present language of the exemption.

Democrats for Life charged that these groups are “attempting to push the mandate beyond its hard won legislative intent” and are using “scare tactics” to convince supporters they risk losing birth control coverage.

Organization board member Stephen Schneck of the Institute for Policy Research & Catholics Studies at Catholic University of America invoked a previous controversy over the effects of the health care legislation.

He said the Emily’s List campaign is “as dishonest as the Republican campaign” to convince voters that the health care legislation funds abortion.

“The PPACA does not fund abortion and not one woman will lose access to birth control under the new law. In fact, millions of women will now receive free birth control under that law,” he said.

Democrats for Life said that the campaign to preserve the narrow exemption could mean that “millions of Americans” will lose access to employer-sponsored health care. The organization cited the remarks of University of Notre Dame president Fr. John I. Jenkins, who said the rules would force the university either to violate Catholic moral teaching by paying for contraception and sterilization, or to violate Catholic social teaching by discontinuing employee and student health care plans. 

“Common sense would say health insurance, even if it does not include contraception coverage, is better than no insurance at all,” Dahlkemper said. “If common sense prevails, the final rule will allow fair conscience protections that will not force religious institutions (to) choose between social teaching and moral teaching.”

In his testimony before the House subcommittee, Cox recommended that Health and Human Services use the broader definition of religious employer provided in the Internal Revenue Code. It should also amend the rule to ensure that individuals and non-religious employers are similarly protected, he said.

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

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