By Kristen Day
A recent poll by Emily's List asks the question, "Do you think that the government should allow so-called "religious employers" to deny women access to birth control?" But that question misstates the issue. The real question is whether government should force religious employers to fund employees' birth control if it is against the religious group's conscientious beliefs.
Until now, federal law has not mandated insurance coverage for contraceptives. Consistent with federal law and the law of nearly every state, employers who oppose birth control for religious reasons have not provided coverage. They do not deny access for their employees. They simply do not pay for it because it is against their religious beliefs. Nor does the issue involve only contraception; some birth-control methods cause abortions of new embryos, a very serious evil according to Catholic thought and the moral views of many other Americans. It is a severe violation on these institutions to require that the health insurance they provide their employees must include contraception coverage.
For many years, American law mostly avoided such impositions on conscience. Contraception coverage was mandated in less than half of the states; and (with a couple of exceptions) the states with mandates provided meaningful exemptions for religious employers with conscientious objections. Under this pattern, contraception coverage has still been widely available: according to a 2010 Guttmacher Institute study, 9 of 10 American health-insurance plans cover the full range of prescription contraceptives.
The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) could have followed the pattern of respect for conscience when it classified contraception and sterilization as "preventive services" that all health plans must cover under the new healthcare statute. Indeed, the statute contains several provisions protecting the conscience of employers opposed to abortion and preserving state laws that protect such beliefs. Instead, when HHS issued an interim final rule, it adopted an extremely narrow religious exemption—the narrowest version in the nation, existing in only three states (California, New York, and Oregon). Under this rule, a religious entity becomes ineligible if it employs persons outside of its faith, or if it even serves persons outside of its faith, or if it engages simply in serving people's needs without explicitly preaching religious tenets.
Protecting almost nothing more than houses of worship, HHS would impose the new mandate on poverty- and immigrant-relief services, schools, and healthcare institutions—organizations whose work benefits the needy in society and, for many people, constitutes the very core of religious faith. In response to HHS, many groups and individuals—Catholics as well as non-Catholics and liberals as well as conservatives—weighed in to request that the final rule allow those with moral concerns to continue providing insurance coverage to their employees without violating their moral beliefs.
If a real exemption is provided, instead of HHS's extraordinarily narrow one, not one woman will lose her current access to birth control or health-care coverage of birth control. The real worry should be that if the narrow exemption is enforced, women and families will lose access to health-care benefits.
Under the narrow rule, numerous organizations like Catholic Charities, which serves 10.2 million people, would be forced to decide whether to cover contraception or cease coverage altogether for its 65,000 employees. There is precedent for Catholic institutions withdrawing from services rather than providing benefits that violate their faith: the same faith that motivates their service in the first place. In 2010, Catholic Charities in D.C. discontinued coverage for employees' spouses because it could not conscientiously accept a mandate to provide equal benefits for same-sex couples; several branches of Catholic Charities have withdrawn from their longstanding, successful adoption work for the same reason. It is even less likely that Catholic and other social services will be willing to pay for contraceptive services that they believe include abortions.
Refusing to accommodate conscientious concerns also reduces public support for the underlying legislation, which is very unfortunate. The healthcare law encourages numerous beneficial preventive services for women that do not violate religious beliefs: annual "well woman" doctor's visits, screening for diabetes in pregnancy and for the virus causing cervical cancer, counseling and screening for domestic violence, and many others. The Catholic Health Association supported the healthcare law itself, in disagreement with the Catholic bishops, but it has now joined the bishops in protesting the contraception mandate. Is it necessary or wise to alienate a group of Catholics who have given important support to healthcare reform?
The right poll question would be "Should the Government force religious organizations to choose between including contraception in their health care plans and not providing insurance coverage at all?"
Common sense would say health insurance, even if it does not include contraception coverage, is better than no insurance at all.
Kristen Day is Executive Director of Democrats For Life of America.