The battle between Catholics and pro-choice groups over birth control coverage raged on Wednesday at an Energy and Commerce Subcommittee hearing on conscience protections, which allow some organizations to abstain from providing coverage on religious grounds.
The Department of Health and Human Services is currently considering regulations that would mandate that all private health care plans cover contraception, including birth control pills and intrauterine devices, at no cost for women. Certain religious organizations would be exempt from having to include contraception in their health care plans if family planning services conflict with their teachings and beliefs.
Unsatisfied with the scope of the religious exemption, the Catholic bishops and other Catholic and Christian health organizations have been aggressively lobbying HHS to either drop contraception from coverage guidelines entirely or to broaden the list of organizations that are exempt from having to provide it. These groups hope to add schools, hospitals and charities to the list.
"One consequence of maintaining this narrow exemption would be that Catholic schools that teach abortion is morally wrong could have to pay for abortifacient drugs for their employees," said Jane G. Belford, chancellor of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington, referring to the morning-after pill. "And Catholic health clinics that refuse to provide contraception or sterilization for patients could have to subsidize contraception and sterilization for their employees."
Under the guidelines HHS is considering, a Catholic organization would only be exempt from having to offer its employees birth control coverage if it primarily employs and serves Catholics and has the "inculcation of religious values" as its primary purpose, according to the agency.
"Jesus himself would not be exempt, because he treated Samaritans and Roman soldiers," said Richard Doerflinger, Associate Director of Pro-Life Activities at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, in an interview with HuffPost.
Yet supporters of women's right to contraceptive services argue that expanding the religious exemption would unfairly deny birth control coverage to millions of women based on the moral compass of their employers, and that the only "consciences" that need to be respected and protected are those of the individual.
"It is incredible to suggest that a hospital or an insurance plan has a conscience," said Jon O'Brien, president of Catholics for Choice. "Allowing religious institutions to dictate the medical care available to their employees or religiously-affiliated organizations to dictate what services their beneficiaries are allowed to access would encroach on the individual consciences of those seeking care and assistance.
"When codified into law, these 'protections' actually constitute state-sponsored discrimination against women based on where they are employed, where and how they buy health insurance and where they seek to receive care."
Rep. Lois Capps (D-Calif.), a member of the Health Subcommittee that held Wednesday's hearing, criticized leadership for calling it, saying it was a thinly veiled attempt by Republicans to roll back women's access to contraception.
"That's their slim basis for having the hearing, that they say it violates provider conscience rights," Capps said in an interview. "The real purpose of the hearing is to prevent women from getting access to preventative health care. It isn't a rational hearing, but it's not the first hearing we've had that's not rational."
The House is currently considering legislation that would impose a broad religious exemption on top of whatever HHS decides, essentially nullifying the health department's recommendation. The Respect for Rights of Conscience Act, introduced by Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.), would allow health plans to "decline coverage of specific items and services that are contrary to the religious beliefs of the sponsor, issuer, or other entity offering the plan."
Capps predicted that the bill will pass the Republican-controlled House and then fail in the Senate, as most anti-choice legislation has this year.
"It won't pass out of the Senate," she said. "It's a waste of time, and it's one more attack on women's health and on sound science. Providing for contraceptive services is a way to prevent abortion and give women the opportunity to plan and to be educated about something that is important and sacred in their lives."
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