Last year, amidst the contentious debates surrounding Obamacare, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops spoke strongly in favor of a reform of our health care system. The bishops stressed that the measure of any health care reform should be twofold. First, true health care must protect human life and safeguard the dignity of the human person. Second, a good reform should make health care accessible to all, including the poor and the immigrant. When individuals have proper and affordable healthcare, society itself benefits.

The bishops are aware of today’s challenges to provide adequate health care. One out of every six patients in the United States receives health care from a Catholic hospital. Even the uninsured are served in Catholic hospitals. In New Jersey, Catholic hospitals in one year alone provided nearly 20 percent of the State’s documented charity care. The cost for this amounted to more than $241,921,000. The government reimburses just about half that amount and, in some cases, nothing at all. Catholic hospitals do a great service for society in providing charity for those who fall through the cracks of the inadequate health care system now in place.

Over the last 40 years, in matters of health care, there has been a very strong bipartisan consensus in America to respect the rights of conscience. The Federal Employees Health Benefits Program protects the right of conscience for health professionals. It specifically exempts religiously affiliated health plans from providing contraception, if this violates the right of conscience. Furthermore, under federal law, even those organizations that have a religious or moral objection to certain forms of AIDS prevention are allowed to participate in federal programs that combat the disease in other nations.

Until recently, our government has a good history in respecting conscience rights in health care. However, that history is about to end. In July, 2011, the influential Institute of Medicine — an organization chartered by the National Academy of Science in 1970 to improve health care of the American people and peoples of the world — recommended to the Obama administration that insurance companies should be forced to pay for birth control and drugs that can cause abortions. A month later, the Obama administration approved the recommendation.

In August, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services issued guidelines to implement Obamacare. These regulations mandate all private health insurance plans to cover sterilization and birth control. Included in the mandated coverage are the IUD, the ‘morning-after’ pill and abortion-inducing drugs. This means that private health plans must provide contraceptive drugs to prevent pregnancy and abortifacients to terminate a pregnancy.

Kathleen Sebelius, secretary of Health and Human Services, said that the decision to issue these regulations is a part of the Affordable Care Act. As of next August, religious organizations must comply. If not, they can no longer provide health care coverage.

To argue that contraception and abortion are part of a woman’s right to preventative health care actually treats conception and pregnancy as if they were a disease. Breast cancer is a disease. Uterine cancer is a disease. A human life is not!

When President Obama signed into law the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act on March 23, 2010, his health care reform included a religious exemption. To read the exemption is enough to realize it hardly qualifies as a serious attempt to respect the conscience rights of those who morally object to abortion, artificial contraception and sterilization. According to the law, the only exemption on religious grounds would be for those who serve only members of their faith community, exclude those of other faiths from their employment, and focus on teaching their religious beliefs.

In reality, this narrowly defined religious exemption clause would apply only to a Catholic institution hiring only Catholics and providing health care services only to Catholics. Thus, no Catholic hospital would ever qualify for this exemption! As Richard Doerflinger has astutely noted, “Jesus himself, who helped and healed people of various faiths, would not be ‘religious enough’ to qualify for this bizarrely narrow exception” (Richard Doerflinger, Sept. 16, 2011).

To put it quite bluntly, the regulations under Obamacare pose an unprecedented threat to the religious freedom. These regulations leave no room for exemption for Catholics or any other groups or individuals who, on moral grounds, oppose contraception and abortion. In effect, these new regulations exclude the practice of religion from health care.

In his Sept. 7, 2011 letter to Congress, Cardinal Di Nardo told our elective lawmakers that “this effort to corral religion exclusively into the sanctuaries of houses of worship betrays a complete ignorance of the role of religion in American life, and of Congress’s long tradition of far more helpful laws on religious freedom.”

Do we really want Catholic institutions and other religious institutions to be compelled to act against their moral teaching? Is this really a benefit to society? Is tolerance not emptied of its meaning? If the government refuses to change the law, Catholic hospitals, charitable institutions, and universities and colleges would be compelled to stop providing all health care coverage for workers. Do we really want this to happen?

Is not the government overstepping its legitimate role and dictating its own secular morality when it mandates contraception and abortion for all health plans? What will the government mandate next?

Reprinted with permission of The Beacon, newspaper of the Paterson Diocese.