Bishops Seek Broader Exemption From Controversial Requirements

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has sharply criticized new guidelines for “preventive services” for women issued by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Among other provisions, the new guidelines, released on Aug. 1, require private health plans to cover female surgical sterilization and all drugs and devices approved by the F.D.A. as contraceptives. The bishops note this includes “drugs which can attack a developing unborn child before and after implantation in the mother’s womb.”

The new regulations were accompanied by an amendment that “allows religious institutions that offer insurance to their employees the choice of whether or not to cover contraception services.” The agency invited public comment on the “interim” policy, suggesting revisions may be forthcoming.

Both the U.S.C.C.B. and the Catholic Health Association have rejected the wording of the religious exemption. “As it stands, the language is not broad enough to protect our Catholic health providers,” the C.H.A. complained in a statement posted on its Web site. “Catholic hospitals are a significant part of this nation’s health care, especially in the care of the most vulnerable. It is critical that we be allowed to serve our nation without compromising our conscience.”

Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo, Archbishop of Galveston-Houston and chairman of the U.S.C.C.B. Committee on Pro-Life Activities, complained the exemption “is so narrow as to exclude most Catholic social service agencies and healthcare providers.” He called on Congress to pass the Respect for Rights of Conscience Act to close such gaps in conscience protection.

Cardinal DiNardo said, “Under the new rule our institutions would be free to act in accord with Catholic teaching on life and procreation only if they were to stop hiring and serving non-Catholics.” Cardinal DiNardo asked: “Could the federal government possibly intend to pressure Catholic institutions to cease providing health care, education and charitable services to the general public?”

Under the new H.H.S. requirements, as of August 2012 new health insurance plans must include women’s preventive services like well-woman visits, breastfeeding support, domestic violence screening and, most controversially, “contraception without charging a co-payment, co-insurance or a deductible.”

H.H.S. Secretary Kathleen Sebelius called the new guidelines “historic” and said they were “based on science and existing literature and will help ensure women get the preventive health benefits they need.” According to an H.H.S. statement, “Family planning services are an essential preventive service for women and critical to appropriately spacing and ensuring intended pregnancies, which results in improved maternal health and better birth outcomes.”

Covered under the new standards are “all Food and Drug Administration approved contraceptive methods, sterilization procedures and patient education and counseling for all women with reproductive capacity.” The so-called abortion pill, RU-486, is not covered, but “emergency contraceptives,” including pills known as Plan B and ella, are.

Cardinal DiNardo said that ella “can abort an established pregnancy weeks after conception.” He added: “H.H.S. says the intent of its ‘preventive services’ mandate is to help ‘stop health problems before they start.’ But pregnancy is not a disease, and children are not a ‘health problem’—they are the next generation of Americans.”

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