“Currently, the archdiocese is free under federal law to offer health benefits coverage that excludes contraception and sterilization,” Belford continued. “We would lose this freedom of conscience under the HHS mandate’s current definition of an exempted religious organization.”
The mandate goes beyond forcing religious institutions to contradict the belief that sterilization and contraception are immoral. Its grant of religious freedom to groups which employ and serve only co-religionists also significantly burdens Catholics’ “deeply held belief that God calls us to serve our neighbors,” she said.
David L. Stevens, M.D., the CEO of the Christian Medical Association, said the religious exemption is “meaningless.” The mandate could trigger a decrease in health care access for patients in underserved regions and populations. It also contributes to “an increasingly hostile environment” for medical students, residents and graduate physicians who face “discrimination, job loss and ostracism” for having pro-life views on abortion, contraceptives and other issues.
He warned that the mandate creates “a climate of coercion” that could prompt pro-life health care professionals to limit the scope of their practice and discourage medical students and residents from choosing careers in specialties likely to involve conflicts of conscience.
“The contraceptive mandate rule sweepingly tramples conscience rights, which have not only provided a foundation for American civil liberties but also a foundation for the ethical and professional practice of medicine,” Stevens said. “The administration should rescind this mandate entirely.”
Stevens’ organization and the Archdiocese of Washington encouraged Congress to pass the Respect for Rights of Conscience Act.
Cox suggested that Health and Human Services use the definition of religious employer used under the Internal Revenue Code. It should also amend the rule to ensure that individuals and non-religious employers are similarly protected.
“Nearly 160 years ago, the Sisters of Mercy responded with compassion and care when government was unable to tend to the victims of the San Francisco cholera epidemic. Today, it is time for government to honor this noble legacy by strengthening once and for all federal conscience protections so all health care providers today, tomorrow and well into the future can carry out their vocations absent the threat of government discrimination,” said Cox.
Jon O’Brien, president of the dissenting group Catholics for Choice, said his organization represents those who respect others’ right to follow his or her own conscience. However, he endorsed the mandate.
He contended that exemptions threaten the conscience rights of every patient seeking care for services he characterized as “essential health care.”
“It is incredible to suggest that a hospital or an insurance plan has a conscience. Granting institutions, or entities like these, legal protection for the rights of conscience that properly belongs to individuals is an affront to our ideals of conscience and religious freedom,” O’Brien argued.
(Story continues below)
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O’Brien charged that the U.S. bishops and some Catholic organizations are asking to be allowed to deny condoms as part of HIV outreach, to “ban” employees and their dependents from getting “the benefit of no-cost contraceptive coverage,” to opt out of providing emergency contraception to victims of sexual violence, and to “deny abortion care to everybody,” even to women in life-threatening situations.
In 2000, the U.S. bishops said that O’Brien’s organization, then called Catholics for a Free Choice, is not a Catholic organization. It does not speak for the Catholic Church and promotes positions contrary to the teaching of the Church.
Many large foundations back Catholics for Choice. The Ford Foundation, whose trustees now include Planned Parenthood Federation of America president Cecile Richards, gave a $300,000 grant to the pro-abortion rights group in 2011.
In his prepared remarks, House subcommittee chairman Rep. Joe Pitts (R-Pa.) charged that the Department of Health and Human Services mandate is “forcing every single person in this country to pay for services that they may morally oppose.”
“Groups who have for centuries cared for the sick and poor will now be forced to violate their religious beliefs if they want to continue to serve their communities,” he continued. “Whether one supports or opposes the health care law, we should universally support the notion that the federal government should be prohibited from taking coercive actions to force people to abandon their religious principles.”
Kevin J. Jones is a senior staff writer with Catholic News Agency. He was a recipient of a 2014 Catholic Relief Services' Egan Journalism Fellowship.