My dear brothers and sisters in Christ, and all people of goodwill,
Recent developments have brought about a crisis for the religious liberty of the Catholic Church in the United States of America. The U.S. Government has mandated that every employer, including Catholic institutions, must supply insurance for drugs that can terminate a human life and elective procedures that destroy the fertility of otherwise healthy people. Failure to comply would bring about thousands of dollars of penalties for every employee, effectively closing down our Catholic hospitals, Catholic schools, homeless shelters, soup kitchens, nursing homes, etc. Never before in the history of the United States has the Federal Government forced citizens to directly purchase what so directly violates their beliefs.
Here is a summary of how this crisis situation developed. On August 1, 2011, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) issued a mandate to require virtually all private health plans to include coverage for all FDA-approved prescription contraceptives, female sterilization procedures, and related so called "patient education and counseling for all women with reproductive capacity." Practically all health plans will have to include these without charge, even if the insurer, the employer or other plan sponsor, or even the woman herself objects to such coverage.
There have been many protests filed with HHS by a host of organizations including a petition signed by over 430 Catholic leaders insisting that this mandate be repealed. (see www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/religious-liberty/conscience-protection/). However, on January 20, 2012, the department of HHS announced its decision that it will refuse to make any significant change in its rule.
I will briefly point out three of the most serious flaws in the mandate of that have brought about this crisis. The first point is that pregnancy is not a disease. The mandate treats pregnancy as a disease in need of "prevention," like breast cancer or AIDS (which other "preventive services" on HHS's list do legitimately seek to prevent). In reality, some of the mandated contraceptives are associated with an increased risk of AIDS, blood clots leading to stroke, and other ailments. Inclusion of these drugs places HHS's effort to prevent disease at war with itself. The claim that greater access to contraceptives will reduce abortions is not supported by the facts. (Please CLICK HERE to be directed to the USCCB site and download the fact sheet "Greater Access to Contraception Does Not Reduce Abortions")
The contraceptive mandate's strongest advocates are groups that perform and promote abortion, who hope a coverage mandate for "prevention" will encourage government and others to see abortion as a "cure". The Institute of Medicine committee that compiled the "preventive services" list for HHS said in its report that unintended pregnancy is "a condition for which safe and effective prevention and treatment" need to be more widely available - setting the stage for mandated coverage of abortion as the "treatment" when prevention fails. Note that women who suffer from infertility, which really is an illness, were ignored in this mandate.
Secondly, the mandate includes abortion causing drugs. As stated above, HHS created this mandate after Congress asked it to develop a list of services all health plans should provide without co-pay. Instead of keeping with the prevention of diseases, HHS took it upon itself to include sterilizations, contraceptives and abortion- inducing drugs. By requiring coverage for all drugs approved for contraception and "emergency contraception" by the FDA, the mandate includes drugs that can interfere with implantation in the womb and therefore destroy the early human embryo. One such drug already approved, "Ella" (ulipristal), is very similar to the abortion drug RU-486 in its formula and its ability to cause an abortion in the first weeks of pregnancy. The new health care reform law forbids HHS to mandate coverage of abortion, but it is doing so here.
Thirdly, the mandate violates religious freedom and rights of conscience that are guaranteed by the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. Many federal laws exempt individuals and institutions from having to take part in health services against their moral or religious convictions; some of these laws specifically protect from forced involvement in contraception or sterilization. (http://old.usccb.org/prolife/issues/abortion/crmay08.pdf) HHS is violating this long federal tradition, and needs to return to it. Congress should also approve the "Respect for Rights of Conscience Act" (H.R. 1179, S. 1467) to ensure that this happens.
The rule has an incredibly narrow religious exemption for "religious employers" (not insurers, schools with student health plans, or families purchasing insurance). Even religious employers are exempt only if their purpose is to teach religious doctrine, they hire and serve mainly people of their own faith, and they qualify as a church or religious order in a very narrow part of the tax code. Most religious institutions providing health, educational or charitable services to others have no protection. It has been noted that Our Lord Jesus himself would not qualify as "religious enough," since he healed the needy regardless of religious affiliation and taught his followers to do the same.
The Church's teaching against early abortion is based on respect for all human life, male and female. Its teaching against contraception and sterilization is based on respect for the power to help generate a new human life, a power held by both men and women - so health plans in accord with Catholic teaching do not cover male or female sterilization. This HHS mandate shows disregard for women, by forcing them to purchase this coverage whether they want it or not.
The contraceptive mandate imposed on health plans by the Department of Health and Human Services violates freedom of conscience, which is guaranteed by the First Amendment and several federal laws. The Bill of Rights says we are free to live by our religious beliefs. Forcing all of us to buy coverage for sterilization and contraceptives, including drugs that induce abortion is a radical incursion into freedom of conscience. The Supreme Court recently declared in the Hosanna-Tabor case that the Constitution gives a priority place to Freedom of Religion.
If the Administration will not rescind this violation of the First Amendment, Congress must do so. Ideally, HHS can leave the law the way it has always been, so those who provide, sponsor and purchase health coverage can make their own decisions about whether to include these procedures without the federal government imposing one answer on everyone. If HHS refuses, it will be especially urgent for Congress to pass the "Respect for Rights of Conscience Act" (HR 1179/S. 1467), to prevent the health care reform act from being used to violate insurers' and purchasers' moral and religious beliefs.
Let us pray for God's help in maintaining our freedom to live as faithful Christians without unconstitutional federal mandates that attempt to cause us to violate our consciences.
Sincerely Yours in Christ,
The Most Rev. James S. Wall, Bishop of Gallup