News Column

Catholics Protest Ruling that Health Plans Must Cover Birth Control

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Catholic leaders are outraged over a recent decision by the Obama administration that would require Catholic-affiliated institutions to cover contraceptives and sterilization in their employee health care plans -- a rule they say would violate one of their core beliefs.

The government's move will affect thousands of people who work for 210 Catholic-related institutions in metro Detroit such as social service centers, schools and hospitals.

The institutions currently don't pay for contraceptives or sterilization.

In pulpits, church bulletins and Congress, concerned Catholics are voicing their disapproval, saying it undermines their constitutional right to freedom of religion.

This week, Detroit Archbishop Allen Vigneron is expected to send a letter expressing his concerns to all 270 parishes in the archdiocese, which oversees 1.3 million Catholics.

Vigneron has criticized the Jan. 20 decision by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, saying the government's move amounts to "discrimination against Americans exercising their right of conscience."

White House press secretary Jay Carney, however, said the rule strikes "an appropriate balance between religious beliefs and access to preventive services for women."

More exemptions to birth control ruling are needed, opponents say

To the Catholic church, people who use contraception are violating the divine plan of God.

"Each act of intercourse must be open to procreation," U.S. Catholic bishops say in their 59-page official statement on marriage.

And so a Jan. 20 decision by the U.S. government to require most employers to have health care plans that cover contraception and sterilization has concerned Catholics across the country. They say their faith is under assault.

"It's dangerous and threatening," said Msgr. Robert McClory, vicar-general of the Archdiocese of Detroit, which encompasses six counties in southeastern Michigan. "We're being told to violate our conscience or be in violation of the law."

At Catholic-affiliated institutions in metro Detroit such as St. John Providence Health System, which includes six hospitals, health care plans for its 12,000 employees don't include coverage for contraceptives if they're used for birth control.

But St. John and more than 200 other Catholic organizations in metro Detroit could be forced to do so under the rule, say Catholic officials.

Catholic officials have launched a campaign to get the rule changed. The president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Timothy Dolan, called it "an attack ... on religious freedom."

U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., has introduced legislation to get the contraception mandate changed. Others are weighing legal challenges.

In Michigan, several bishops have strongly attacked the decision. And the Michigan Catholic Conference, a lobbying group based in Lansing, is urging Catholics to contact their legislators to get the rule overturned.

In some Detroit parishes, priests started speaking out against the directive during Sunday services. This week, Detroit Archbishop Allen Vigneron is to send a letter to all priests urging prayer and action to get the mandate changed.

For American Catholic leaders, the issue is of particular concern because in recent years, they have increasingly preached the value of natural family planning, which avoids the use of artificial birth control.

But the U.S. government is defending the mandate, saying that it is needed to ensure that all women have access to key benefits that ensure their health.

"Birth control ... is the most commonly taken drug in America by young and middle-aged women," said Secretary Kathleen Sebelius of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which issued the rule. Contraceptives have health benefits for women and reduce health care costs, she said.

Moreover, she said, "this proposal strikes the appropriate balance between respecting religious freedom and increasing access to important preventive services."

The proposal is supported by women's groups and pro-choice organizations. Some Catholics also support the move.

"The bishops do not speak for us," Catholics for Choice, a liberal advocacy group, said in a statement. "In shouting ... from the pulpit, they are threatening to drown out the voice of the majority of Catholics who believe that women should be able to access birth control."

The president of the group, Jon O'Brien, said that many Catholic employers are "major business enterprises that ... get federal money" and so should offer such coverage. He said four of the 10 largest health care systems in the U.S. are Catholic.

Liberal Catholics note that 98% of Catholic women have used contraception, despite church teachings. And about half of U.S. Catholics who leave their faith cite their unhappiness with the church's teachings on birth control as a reason they left, according to a 2009 Pew survey.

Supporters also note that the rule gives an exemption for religious institutions that only serve their particular faith group. That would exempt, for example, a Catholic parish. But the exemption would not apply to institutions such as Catholic hospitals or schools, which often serve non-Catholics.

The rule has now become a hot-button issue in the presidential race as both parties try to win over the Catholic vote.

Newt Gingrich, who is Catholic, said last week that the mandate shows that the Obama administration "has declared war on the Catholic church."

Mitt Romney said Friday he would repeal the mandate his first day in office.

Some liberal Catholics and others who had supported President Barack Obama's health care plan also are upset by the rule.

Sister Carol Keehan of the Catholic Health Association said the move "jolted us."

The controversy started when Obama's health care plan was approved in 2010. Part of the plan called for coverage in all plans to ensure that women have access to medical care that meets their needs.

In August, the HHS issued an interim rule that said most health care plans will have to cover contraceptive services. The Jan. 20 ruling affirmed that earlier statement.

Part of the debate centers on what exactly is a religious employer.

The Obama administration essentially defined it as one that serves only people who belong to its faith. Such employers will be exempt from the rule. But Catholic critics say the definition should have been broadened to include religious institutions that also serve people of different faiths.

Supporters of the rule say that people who work for religious organizations should have the right to full health care coverage. They shouldn't be penalized just because their employer happens to promote a specific faith, they argue.

Most groups have until August to comply with the mandate. But religious organizations have an extra year to comply, until August 2013.

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