On August 1, 2011, the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) issued an “internal final rule” to require virtually all private health plans to include coverage for all FDA-approved prescription contraceptives, and female sterilization procedures. Among these prescription contraceptives are drugs which are known to induce abortion.  All health plans will be required to include these services without co-pays or other cost sharing – even if the insurer, the employer or the woman herself objects to such coverage.  Since August, numerous protests to this rule have been formally filed with HHS, seeking a broader definition of the religious exemption, in keeping with the long-standing practice of law and understanding of religious freedom.  Most of these protests did not lead to a change in the rule.  On January 20, 2012, HHS decided not to make any significant change in its rule.

 The religious exemption under this new mandate is very narrowly defined.  It will only exempt religious organizations who employ members of their own faith, or those which only minister to members of their own faith.  We as Catholics do not discriminate on the basis of creed, those to whom we offer services.  Since our Catholic institutions do not fall into this narrowly defined exemption, we will now, by law, be required to violate our conscience in both paying for and providing for medications and procedures that we find morally objectionable.

 We as Catholics do not see pregnancy as a disease, and we certainly see no need to provide for means to end such life through mandated practices in the health care plans we offer our employees.  We see life as a gift from God, and are committed to protecting it from all threats, in all stages of life, born or unborn.  Health care is about sustaining life, not ending life.

 Clearly, we are not mandated to offer health care plans to our employees, but it is something we feel should be standard operating procedure.  “Nonprofit employers, who based on religious beliefs, [who] do not provide contraceptive coverage in their insurance plan, will be provided an additional year, until August 1, 2013, to comply with the new law.”  This sounds understanding, but with no change in the basic protection of religious liberty, this is nothing more than an invitation for us as Church to figure out how we are to violate our conscience, or pay significant financial fees.

 With this ruling, an agency of the US Government is disregarding our constitutional right to protection of conscience on the basis of religious freedom.  Never before in our history as a nation has the government required citizens to purchase a product that violates their conscience.  It is my deepest hope that the US Bishops will challenge this new HHS mandate to the highest court, and demand a proper respect for our religious freedom, which is protected in the US Constitution.

 Finally, I encourage all our Catholics to come to a profound understanding of this situation.  When an Administration, after seeking feedback on such a controversial ruling, still decides to act in a manner that violates our freedom of religion, it is quite telling…