- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 22, 2012

Pro-choice leaders and organizations applauded the Obama administration’s Friday decision to require almost all employers to provide free birth control in their health insurance, but Catholic leaders quickly vowed to resist the rule.

In a final rule on preventive services in the Affordable Care Act, the Department of Health and Human Services decided to require virtually all employers to offer birth control without deductibles or co-pays in their employee health insurance as of Aug. 1.

An exemption still stands to allow houses of worship, such as churches, synagogues and mosques, to not provide such contraceptive coverage.

However, employers that are religiously affiliated but hire people with diverse religious backgrounds - such as schools, hospitals and social service organizations - are not exempt. Since many of these employers do not currently provide contraceptive coverage, they will have until Aug. 1, 2013, to adopt it in their insurance policies, the new rule said.

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said Friday that this decision was made “after very careful consideration.”

“I believe this proposal strikes the appropriate balance between respecting religious freedom and increasing access to important preventive services,” she said, noting that the new rule “will have no impact” on existing conscience protections for health care providers.

Pro-choice groups hailed the ruling - it is “one of the biggest advances for women’s health in a generation,” said Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America.

“The administration deserves credit for standing its ground and following the science,” said Rep. Lois Capps, California Democrat.

“One of the signature achievements of the Affordable Care Act was to increase access to health care for women,” said Rep. Diana DeGette, Colorado Democrat, and co-chairwoman of the Congressional Pro-Choice Caucus.

These and many other members of Congress had urged President Obama to “secure” free contraception for women in his health care reform law.

Catholic leaders, however, promised to work to block the “literally unconscionable” rule.

“In effect, the president is saying we have a year to figure out how to violate our consciences,” said Cardinal-designate Timothy M. Dolan, archbishop of New York and president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

“This is nothing less than a direct attack on religion and First Amendment rights,” said Franciscan Sister Jane Marie Klein, chairwoman of the board at Franciscan Alliance Inc., a system of 13 Catholic hospitals.

The birth-control rule means that sterilization and abortifacients must be included in virtually all health care plans, the Catholic leaders said. “I have hundreds of employees who will be upset and confused by this edict. I cannot understand it at all,” said Sister Klein.

The Catholic leaders said they would be “working with our fellow Americans to reform the law and change this unjust regulation.”

In December, more than 60 evangelical and Jewish leaders wrote to Mr. Obama to say that most faith-based organizations would not be protected by the “religious-employer” exemption. Many religious organizations in addition to Catholics are “deeply troubled by and opposed to the mandate and the narrow exemption,” they said.

Birth control is widely used in the United States, with 82 percent of sexually active women aged 15-44 using the pill at least once in their lifetimes, according to a federal study undertaken in 2008. Many employer health plans already cover contraception, usually with co-pays from employees.

• Cheryl Wetzstein can be reached at cwetzstein@washingtontimes.com.

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