New HHS abortion/contraception mandate rules blocked

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WASHINGTON (BP) -- A crucial win for objectors to the Obama-era abortion/contraception mandate is now on hold.

In a Dec. 15 ruling, a federal court in Philadelphia blocked enforcement of the Trump administration's new rules that exempt from the controversial requirement those employers that object based on their religious beliefs or moral convictions. The new regulations issued Oct. 6 by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) provided relief from a rule that requires employers to provide their workers with coverage for contraceptives, including those with mechanisms that can potentially induce abortions.

Federal Judge Wendy Beetlestone's preliminary injunction applies to the entire country even though it was requested by Pennsylvania. Under Beetlestone's opinion, the injunction will remain in effect while the case proceeds.

The abortion/contraception mandate, a 2011 HHS rule that helped implement a controversial health-care law enacted the previous year, resulted in legal challenges from more than 90 religious nonprofits, including GuideStone Financial Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention and several Baptist universities. Little Sisters of the Poor, a Roman Catholic order that serves the elderly poor, became the face of the objecting institutions.

Despite the new HHS rules, entities such as GuideStone and Little Sisters have continued to push their arguments in court to assure freedom of conscience for themselves and others is safeguarded.

Religious liberty and pro-life advocates bemoaned the ruling.

"This injunction represents a needless impediment to rights of conscience in America," said Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, in written remarks for Baptist Press. "The previous administration was wrong to weaponize the insurance debate in the first place by forcing groups like the Little Sisters of the Poor to violate their sincerely held beliefs."

Moore expressed hope the case "will be resolved without delay and religious liberty will be upheld."

Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the pro-life Susan B. Anthony List, described it as "a shameful ruling" that attempts to maintain the Obama administration's "assault on conscience rights and religious liberty."

The government has no compelling interest "in forcing pro-life employers to violate their consciences to provide abortion-inducing drugs," she said in a written statement.

Abortion-rights advocates applauded the injunction.

"It is every woman's right to decide what to do with her body, and it is a fundamental freedom to be able to decide if and when to have a child," said Dawn Laugens, executive vice president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, in written comments.

In her 44-page opinion, Beetlestone said Pennsylvania would likely succeed on its claims the new rules contradict the text of the health-care law and the Trump administration "did not follow proper procedures in issuing" its regulations.

The new rules "will likely inflict a direct injury upon [Pennsylvania] by imposing substantial financial burdens" on it because of the increased spending for programs that provide contraceptives, she said.

In its Oct. 6 release, HHS said the new rules will have no effect on government programs that offer free or subsidized contraceptive coverage to low-income women and will have no effect on more than 99.9 percent of American women.

In May 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court nullified multiple federal appeals court decisions against the religious institutions and blocked the Obama administration from imposing fines on them. The justices told the appeals courts involved to give the parties an opportunity to reach a solution "that accommodates petitioners' religious exercise while at the same time ensuring that women covered by petitioners' health plans receive full and equal health coverage, including contraceptive coverage." No agreement was reached before Obama left office in January.

When it issued the controversial rule in August 2011, HHS provided an exemption for churches and their auxiliaries but did not extend it to non-church-related, nonprofit organizations that object. HHS proposed nearly 10 accommodations for the objecting institutions, but none proved satisfactory to their conscience concerns.

The federally approved contraceptives for which coverage is required by the mandate include the intrauterine device (IUD) and such drugs as Plan B, the "morning-after" pill. Both the IUD and "morning-after" pill possess post-fertilization mechanisms that potentially can cause abortions by preventing implantation of tiny embryos. The rule also covers "ella," which -- in a fashion similar to the abortion drug RU 486 -- can act even after implantation to end the life of the child.

In 2014, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Hobby Lobby's conscience-based challenge to the abortion/contraception mandate. In its 5-4 opinion in that case, the justices upheld objections to the requirement by "closely held," for-profit companies, such as family owned businesses.

Messengers to the 2012 SBC meeting adopted a resolution calling for an exemption from the mandate for "all religious organizations and people of faith ... who declare a religious objection to such coverage."

The case is Pennsylvania v. Trump.

Tom Strode is Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention's news service. BP reports on missions, ministry and witness advanced through the Cooperative Program and on news related to Southern Baptists' concerns nationally and globally.
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