Obama admin. reaffirms: health care plans must cover abortion-causing drugs
In its announcement Friday (Jan. 20), the administration also refused to expand what critics say is a too narrow exemption for religious institutions opposed to providing birth control under preventive services.
The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) did make one concession: It will grant an extra year for compliance with the rule to nonprofit employers who presently refuse to cover contraceptives in their insurance plan because of their religious beliefs. Those employers will have until Aug. 1, 2013, to abide by the requirement. The rule goes into effect Aug. 1 of this year for most other health plans.
Pro-life and religious freedom advocates decried the Obama administration's latest decision and found no solace in the one-year delay.
Friday's announcement by HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius followed months of protests against an interim final rule issued Aug. 1 of last year. Under that guideline, HHS said the controversial 2010 health-care reform law -- titled the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act but dubbed "Obamacare" by its critics -- would require health plans and insurers to provide no-cost coverage of contraceptives, including those with abortion-inducing properties.
Sebelius said Friday she believes HHS' approach "strikes the appropriate balance between respecting religious freedom and increasing access to important preventive services," but critics of the rule and the religious exemption did not agree.
Critics say the religious exemption provided in the rule will not protect the conscience rights of such faith-based organizations as schools, hospitals and social service programs -- and some churches.
"This is bad news for freedom of conscience and for respect for the freedom of religion protections guaranteed in the American Constitution," said Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. "Secretary Sebelius is stating that people who have religious convictions against contraceptives or particular types of contraceptives that are abortifacients will have a one-year reprieve before they will be forced to pay for health insurance for that which they find unconscionable.
"It's analogous to giving a man on death row a one-year stay of execution. You can follow your conscience for one more year," Land said. "This is outrageous. And I am sure it will lead many people to hope and to pray that there will be a new secretary of Health and Human Services and a new administration to provide a reprieve from this squelching of conscience before the deadline arrives."
Under the new rule, all methods approved as contraceptives by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will be included in a range of services offered to patients free of charge. Those FDA-endorsed contraceptives include ones that have the ability to cause abortions -- emergency contraception, such as Plan B; the intrauterine device (IUD), and "ella." Emergency contraception is also known as the "morning-after" pill.
Timothy Dolan, Roman Catholic archbishop of New York and president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said, "In effect, the president is saying we have a year to figure out how to violate our consciences.
"To force American citizens to choose between violating their consciences and forgoing their healthcare is literally unconscionable," Dolan said in a written statement. "It is as much an attack on access to health care as on religious freedom."
The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty has already filed lawsuits against the rule on behalf of Colorado Christian University and Belmont Abbey College in North Carolina.
Hannah Smith, the Becket Fund's senior legal counsel, called the one-year delay by HHS "a shameless attempt to kick the can down the road in an election year. Religious colleges, universities, and hospitals will never pay for abortion drugs in violation of their religious beliefs -- this year or any other year."
Abortion rights organizations -- such as NARAL Pro-choice America and Planned Parenthood -- applauded the announcement.
"All women should have access to contraceptive coverage, regardless of where they work," NARAL President Nancy Keenan said in a written release. "The administration stood firm against intensive lobbying efforts from anti-birth-control organizations trying to expand the refusal option even further to allow organizations and corporations to deny their employees contraceptive coverage."
Emergency contraception is basically a heavy dose of birth control pills. While the normally two-step process can restrict ovulation in a woman or prevent fertilization, it also can block implantation of the early embryo in the uterine wall. The latter effect would cause an abortion, pro-life advocates point out. An IUD also can prevent implantation.
"Ella," though approved as emergency contraception by the FDA in 2010, is more closely related to the abortion drug RU 486, according to pro-life organizations. Like RU 486, it blocks production of the hormone progesterone, destroying the placenta that provides nutrition to the embryo and causing the tiny, unborn child's death, the American Association of Pro-life Obstetricians and Gynecologists says. "Ella' also can block implantation.
While opposition to the rule has been portrayed as primarily Catholic in its origin, Land and other evangelical Christians also have strongly protested. In December, Land joined 60 others -- almost entirely evangelical Christians, plus two Jewish leaders -- in a letter to President Obama affirming they are deeply concerned about the "contraceptive mandate," as it has become known, and its weak exemption for religious employers.
During a public comment period provided by HHS, Land protested in a Sept. 30 submission the use of taxpayer funds in support of abortion drugs and the violations of religious liberty and freedom of conscience in the guidelines.
In his September comments, Land pointed to Southern Baptists' long-standing support for the sanctity of human life and religious freedom. He cited 11 resolutions opposing abortion that were passed at Southern Baptist Convention annual meetings from 1980 to 2011. He also referenced the 2000 Baptist Faith and Message, which says human life begins at "conception." The convention has approved numerous resolutions backing expansive religious liberty protections, most recently in 2005 and 2011, Land said.
Tom Strode is Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press.