HHS says California can require that all health plans cover elective abortions

A federal agency has determined that California can continue to demand that all health plans under the jurisdiction of the state's Department of Managed Health Care—"even those purchased by churches and other religious organizations"—cover elective abortions for any reason.

The coverage includes late-term abortions and "those performed for reasons of 'sex selection.'"

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The chairmen of two U.S. Catholic bishops' committees June 22 said the administrative ruling issued a day earlier by the U.S. Department of health and Human Services fails to respect the right to life and religious freedom.

"It is shocking that HHS has allowed the state of California to force all employers—even churches—to fund and facilitate elective abortions in their health insurance plans," said Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan of New York and Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore.

The cardinal is chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Committee on Pro-Life Activities, and Archbishop Lori chairs the U.S.C.C.B.'s Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty.

"Even those who disagree on the issue of life should be able to respect the conscience rights of those who wish not to be involved in supporting abortion," they said in a statement.

The chairmen called for an immediate federal legislative remedy, urging Congress to pass the Conscience Protection Act introduced by lawmakers last March. Supporters of the measure, who include the U.S.C.C.B., say it would address the situation in California by closing several loopholes in current law.

In 2014, the state began demanding all health plans under its Department of Managed Health Care cover elective abortions. The state allows no exemption of any kind.

The California Catholic Conference and other churches and religious organizations filed a complaint about the policy with the Office of Civil Rights at HHS asserting that California's reinterpretation of state law violated the federal Weldon Amendment, which was enacted in 2005 to protect the conscience rights of physicians and nurses who choose not to participate in abortions and hospitals that do not offer them.

"This [H.H.S.] administrative ruling fails to respect not only the rights to life and religious freedom, but also the will of Congress and the rule of law," Cardinal Dolan and Archbishop Lori said, adding that passage of the Conscience Protection Act would "stop further discrimination against people of faith and against all who respect unborn human life."

The cardinal and archbishop wrote a letter in March to House members urging that they vote for the measure, and in April a group of 26 organizations sent a letter to lawmakers stating their support.

H.R. 4828, as the bill is known in the House, "is very similar to the abortion nondiscrimination provision that for the last three years has been part of the House's Labor/HHS appropriations bills," the letter said. "It takes the core policy of Weldon—protecting those who decline to perform, pay for, refer for, or provide coverage for abortion—and writes it into permanent law. It clarifies the protections of Weldon, and adds a private right of action to enforce this law and other long-standing conscience laws on abortion."

Besides the U.S.C.C.B., signers of the letter included the Christian Medical Association and Catholic Medical Association; the National Council of Catholic Women; the March for Life Education and Defense Fund; the National Association of Evangelicals; the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission; the Knights of Columbus; National Right to Life; and several associations of physicians and nurses.

The measure was introduced in the Senate May 12; S. 2927 has been referred to the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.

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