There has been a great deal of action on the new federal mandate that all health insurance policies cover contraceptives (including drugs that cause early abortions) and sterilizations. There is also a great deal of misinformation, political spin, and outright deception going around about what is actually at stake, and what has happened. Here are a few key points to keep in mind:
The Web of Mandates in the Health Care Law
Remember the background for this situation — it comes from the health care reform law, which is a comprehensive regulation that impacts everyone in the United States. That law imposes three levels of mandates: (1) all individuals will be required to have a health insurance policy, or pay a fine to the government; (2) all employers (with a few exceptions for small businesses) will have to provide their employees with an insurance plan or pay a fine to the government; and (3) all insurance companies will have to cover a variety of things, including “preventive services”. We must understand these legal requirements, if we’re going to understand the significance of this new mandate.
The Contraceptive/Abortion Mandate
Last summer, the Department of Health and Human Services, acting under the authority given to them by the health care reform law, announced regulations to define what had to be covered by health insurance policies under the rubric “preventive services”. These regulations would require all employers and health insurance policies to cover contraceptives (including drugs that cause early abortions) and sterilizations. There was an extremely narrow exemption for religious employers, but no exemption for religious individuals or insurance companies with objections.
There was considerable public furor in response, and thousands of people — including the U.S. Bishops and many other religious groups — filed comments with HHS, asking for the rejection of the regulation or the granting of a broader religious exemption. Nevertheless, on January 20, 2012, HHS announced that they were going to implement those regulations without any modification whatsoever.
There is No “Compromise”
In response to the renewed public furor that followed the issuance of the final regulations, the President announced on February 10 that there would be a “compromise” to address the religious liberty objections of churches and other faith-based institutions.
But here’s the key thing to remember: no details about this “compromise” have been announced. The Administration has made clear that they are not open to any further concessions on religious liberty. The original regulations have become law — there is absolutely no substance whatsoever to the “compromise”, beyond promises of something at some undefined time in the future after the next election. It’s all smoke and mirrors and political spin.
The net result is that there is virtually no way out of this mandate — it is very, very broad, and the “religious liberty” exemption is very, very narrow. Very few employers — and no individuals or insurance companies — will be able to claim conscientious objector status. There is no “compromise” in this regulation — nothing.
It’s Not About Banning Contraceptives — It’s About Religious Liberty
Sadly, access to contraceptives, at low or no cost, is virtually universal in the United States. Nobody is calling for them to be outlawed, and nobody is giving employers the power to ban their employees from buying them. That’s all media and political spin — it’s an outright lie. This is not about contraceptives. If people want to use them, that’s between them and God.
This is about government coercion against churches. It’s about the fundamental human right to tell the government to “leave us alone” — don’t make us cooperate with practices that we find immoral. As the U.S. Bishops’ Conference has said:
“Under the mandate, the government forces religious insurers to write policies that violate their beliefs; forces religious employers and schools to sponsor and subsidize coverage that violates their beliefs; and forces religious employees and students to purchase coverage that violates their beliefs.”
That’s contrary to the basic principles of American democracy, and that’s why we’re opposed to it.
What is Being Done to Fight This?
The U.S. Bishops have been very outspoken in opposition to the mandate, and in defense of our religious liberty. Every bishop in the United States has condemned this mandate. Leaders of many religious communities have condemned it. Leaders of other faiths — Orthodox, Protestant, and Jewish — have joined in opposing it.
Just last week, an attempt was made in the U.S. Senate to add an amendment to a spending bill, to provide protection for religious individuals and institutions. This particular tactic was chosen because the rules of the Senate require a super-majority of 60 votes before a bill can be brought to the floor for a vote — this is a legacy of the old days of filibustering. But the rules permit an amendment to be approved by a simple majority — 51 votes. It was hoped that this amendment would pass both the House and the Senate, and that the President would not veto a large and important spending bill, just for the sake of this provision. Unfortunately, the Senate did not approve the amendment — it only got 48 votes, just shy of the number needed for passage.
This leaves the Church with several options at this point:
Continue pressing Congress for action — There are several bills before Congress that would correct the problems created by this mandate. Bills like the Respect for Rights of Conscience Act and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 2012 deserve our support. We must keep pressing Congress with emails and letters in support of them (an easy way is to go here). Unfortunately, our New York Senators and most of the Congressional representatives from the Archdiocese are unlikely to support our position. But we must keep the pressure on.
Going to court to defend our rights — Several lawsuits have been filed already, attacking the mandate, and more will be filed. The grounds for the cases include the First Amendment and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The entire health care law is currently being reviewed by the Supreme Court, and a decision will be handed down later this year.
Educating ourselves and others — This is a very complicated issue, and many people are suffering from political fatigue at this point in the seemingly-perpetual Presidential campaign. But there is so much dis-information out there that we must redouble our efforts to make sure that people understand what’s really going on here, and what’s at stake. The U.S. Bishops’ website has many valuable and easy-to-understand resources that we can use in our parishes and communities.
Supporting our bishops and standing united with them — The supporters of the mandate are trying to drive a wedge between Catholics and our bishops, and are forming alliances with Catholics who either dissent from Church teaching on contraception and abortion, or who would rather stand with politicians than their shepherds. Our bishops are being battered in the public square, and the level of anti-Catholic bigotry is simply astounding. This is a time for all Catholics to rally behind the standard of Christ — and to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with our bishops.
This is just one stage of a long, ongoing battle to defend religious freedom in our nation. This liberty is under continual attack from our own government. Our Lord promised that the gates of hell would never prevail against the Church. We must be fervent in our prayers, and steadfast and vigilant in our defense of the Church, and the rights of individuals to live according to their faith.