On January 20, the Department of Health and Human Services announced that it would not exempt health plans provided by non-profit religious employers from the requirement to provide “contraceptive services". This means that Catholics and other religious groups no longer have to an exemption based on conscience. The so-called conscience exception has long been recognized in health care. It exempts persons who, because of their religious beliefs cannot comply with the law without violation of their moral duty, from having to comply. This is essentially about abortion.
Church-affiliated institutions must now cover free contraception for their employees, the Obama administration has announced. The regulation in question, released by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), falls under the category of “preventative services” and would require almost all health insurance plans to cover everything from all FDA-approved contraceptives to sterilizations—without cost to the insured.
The drugs that religious affiliated organizations would be forced to subsidize under the new rule include drugs, which have been approved by the FDA as ‘emergency contraceptive’ but can act like the abortion drug RU-486. It can abort an established pregnancy weeks after conception. The pro-life majority of Americans – Catholics and others – would be outraged to learn that their premiums must be used for this purpose.
Religion has a strong claim to accommodation, because its exercise is protected by the constitution. American law has, until now, aimed to be neutral on moral questions. But in forcing those who hold objections to this rule on religious grounds, to provide abortion related coverage, the Obama administration has taken the side of the pro-choice forces. The long tradition of keeping the government from endorsing the beliefs of one side against the other on moral matters is now up in smoke.
What was, until this new edict, forbidden for health care providers as a matter of conscience, becomes a duty enforced by threats to job, licensure and career. An ethical obligation not to take life suddenly becomes a duty to take life, reversing many years of settled practice. Many people in the United States, and especially orthodox and observant religious individuals and communities, continue to regard abortion in most circumstances as a grave evil. Right or wrong, that is a matter of conscience.
New rights established mainly by judicial rulings, such as Roe v Wade, make previously forbidden behavior lawful, and have expanded the options for those who wish to seek abortions. But what is optional behavior for clients or patients now becomes mandatory for professionals in the form of participation or collusion in the legally permitted behavior to which they hold objections on moral and religious grounds. An argument for tolerating certain behavior because of Roe v Wade has become a case for intolerance--of those who refuse to be personally or professionally complicit in them.
It is worth noting how the language of the new rule is clothed in the drab attire of neutral language. Abortion is part of the “full range” of “reproductive health care” or of, meeting “reproductive health needs,” The truth is that except in rare cases, abortion is seldom remotely definable as a medical need. For a Christian, it means to put one’s immortal soul in jeopardy; for a Catholic Christian, it means to excommunicate oneself from your Church and its sacraments.
Obama and secretary Sebelius have forgotten that the government should guard against this sort of tyranny, because it impinges on religious freedom. Rather than taking steps to make sure that people are not forced to act against religious beliefs, the Obama administration will force people and religious organizations to drop coverage rather than violate their conscience.
The new rule entangles the government in religion, a place where it has no business. It will inhibit, not advance religious freedom. The message conveyed is that the administration endorses abortion rights without regard to the religious beliefs of those who think it wrong and object on moral grounds. No matter which side of the question you’re on, the fact that the administration is playing favorites and picking sides on this complicated issue must give you pause. It is using the power of the government to bend one side to the will of the other.
Regardless of where we stand on the underlying question, I suspect people feel that something is fundamentally wrong when the weight of government is behind the push to coerce others to bend to our will, particularly when they assert objections on religious or moral grounds. People of faith and people who respect our freedom to practise the religion of our own choosing, may well remember the conscience exemption come November.