September 27, 2011 Print

Religious Exemptions Under Fire in Health Care Coverage

by Karla Dial

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) wraps up a public comment period Friday on a new interim rule requiring nearly all private health plans to cover contraception, sterilization and possible abortifacients as free “preventive” care for women.

If the rule is adopted, insurers would be forced to cover all methods approved by the Food and Drug Administration — including so-called “morning after” pills — and individuals who object to them on moral and religious grounds would be forced to subsidize them.

In August, NARAL Pro-Choice America sent out a call to action, and last week, the National Organization for Women (NOW) sent another, saying there should be no loopholes at all.

“Opponents of women’s access to contraception have stepped up pressure on (HHS) to expand an exemption allowing some religious institutions to deny birth control insurance coverage to their employees,” NOW wrote. “This exemption should not have been included in the HHS rules in the first place.”

The way the rule is written, however, has led many religious groups to say the exemption is so narrow as to be completely useless: The only “religious institutions” that would not be forced to cover contraceptives and sterilization are those employing and serving only members of their own denominations — churches. Every other ministry would have to comply.

“The proposed exemption (limits) its application to employers who do little (or nothing) but preach to the convinced,” three members of the Witherspoon Task Force on Conscience Protection wrote yesterday in The Public Discourse. “Recent history demonstrates that many religious employers will exit from the marketplace rather than abandon their mission to offer faithful witness in the course of providing service. Those behind the new regulations must be willing to accept this effect, and perhaps even desire it.

“This is revolutionary. Never before in American history has any administration — state or federal — been so willing to force religious institutions out of business.”

CitizenLink Senior Director for Issues Analysis Carrie Gordon Earll said it’s important for everyone to make their thoughts known on the issue — even though the Obama administration will make the final call on whether to change the rule.

“This is one opportunity people have to easily be on the record,” she said. “This is an example of why elections matter.”

HHS is accepting public comment on this topic through Friday. Weigh in on this important issue.

Three talking points you might want to include:

  • Your opposition to mandatory contraceptive coverage, including possible abortifacient drugs, in all health plans;
  • Your desire to see the current narrow religious exemption language broadened to include religiously affiliated institutions such as hospitals and schools, as well as nonprofit organizations with a mission to oppose abortion and people with moral or ethical views opposing abortion;
  • The fact that as presented, this interim final rule poses an unprecedented threat to religious freedom; and an expanded religious exemption is a step toward protecting religious liberty. 

Read “Conscience, Coercion, and Healthcare,” by Helen Alvaré, Gerard V. Bradley and O. Carter Snead, The Public Discourse, Sept. 26, 2011.

Read “Morning After Pill (Emergency Contraception).”

Poll & Analysis: Majority of Americans oppose taxpayer funding of abortion.