Cardinal: Federal rule won’t protect conscience rights of health workers

Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON — Witnesses clashed at a House subcommittee hearing Nov. 2 over whether the Department of Health and Human Services’ interim final rule requiring no-cost coverage of contraception and sterilization in most health plans violates conscience rights and threatens access to care.

Three of the five witnesses before the health subcommittee of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce argued in the affirmative, while two others said it did not.

Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Pro-Life Activities, also submitted written testimony at the hearing in the form of a Nov. 1 letter to Rep. Joe Pitts, R-Pa., the subcommittee chairman.

“A failure to respect conscience rights poses a serious threat to the goal we share of expanding access to health care,” the cardinal wrote, adding that Catholic organizations “will have no choice but to stop providing health care and other services to the needy who are not Catholic, or to stop providing health coverage to their own employees.”

“This is an intolerable dilemma, and either choice will mean reduced access to health care,” Cardinal DiNardo added.

The cardinal urged passage of the Respect for Rights of Conscience Act, which would “provide that new nationwide mandates under the new health care reform law will not forbid the issuers, sponsors and beneficiaries of private health plans to negotiate health coverage that is consistent with their moral and religious convictions.”

Pitts said in his opening statement at the hearing that when the health reform law was being debated in Congress, its “proponents adamantly refuted claims that this would be a federal government takeover of our health care system.”

“Now, we have the federal Department of Health and Human Services forcing every single person in this country to pay for services that they may morally oppose,” he said. “Whether one supports or opposes the health care law, we should universally support the notion that the federal government should be prohibited from taking coercive actions to force people to abandon their religious principles.”

Jane G. Belford, chancellor and general counsel of the Archdiocese of Washington, outlined the variety of services offered by just one of the nation’s 195 dioceses “through its schools, medical clinics, social service agencies, senior and low-income housing, job training programs and vast number of programs and services for persons in need, regardless of their faith or lack of faith.”

“If not for these ministries and the services of religious organizations, more of the work of caring for the sick, the poor and the marginalized would fall to government, or simply go undone,” Belford said.

She said the Catholic Church would not abandon either its commitment to serve the needy nor its belief in the value and dignity of all human life.

“But I implore the committee to consider our nation’s historical commitment to religious liberty and the value and importance of the church’s services to the poor and vulnerable, and to allow us to continue to observe our beliefs without interference by the law,” Belford added.

William J. Cox, president and CEO of the Alliance of Catholic Health Care, based in Sacramento, Calif., said the “extremely narrow” religious exemption in the interim final rule “offers Catholic institutional ministries a Hobson’s choice: cooperate under governmental compulsion with conduct that is inconsistent with their religious and moral beliefs, or cease functioning altogether.”

Under the HHS rule, to qualify for a religious exemption, an organization would have to meet four criteria: “(1) has the inculcation of religious values as its purpose; (2) primarily employs persons who share its religious tenets; (3) primarily serves persons who share its religious tenets; and (4) is a nonprofit organization” under specific sections of the Internal Revenue Code.

“It is particularly ironic that HHS is substantially burdening Catholic institutional ministries because they respectfully avoid inculcating religious beliefs, and compassionately serve persons of all faith traditions and those having no faith tradition at all,” Cox added. “It is the latter population that will be the co-victim, along with Catholic ministries, if this rule is left unchanged.”

Dr. David L. Stevens, CEO of the Christian Medical Association, said the more than 16,000 members of his organization are facing “an increasingly hostile environment in which medical students, residents and graduate physicians face discrimination, job loss and ostracism for holding pro-life views on abortion, controversial contraceptives and other ethical issues.”

The HHS rule could “trigger a decrease in access to health care by patients in medically underserved regions and populations” and could force pro-life employers not to provide health insurance for its own employees, he added.

Speaking in favor of the HHS rule and the present religious exemption were Dr. Mark Hathaway, director of obstetrics and gynecology outreach services at Washington Hospital Center, and Jon O’Brien, president of Catholics for Choice.

Hathaway said any moves to broaden the HHS religious exemption “would mean leaving in place insurmountable obstacles to contraceptive services for far too many women.”

O’Brien called conscience protections in current law “refusal clauses” and said they threaten “the conscience rights of every patient seeking care for these restricted services and every provider who wishes to provide comprehensive care to their patients.”

He said most “Catholics in the pews” support “the availability of comprehensive reproductive health care services for all those who choose to utilize them” and claimed the stand taken by the U.S. bishops is “the minority view” in the Catholic Church.

The U.S. bishops have said O’Brien’s organization, formerly called Catholics for a Free Choice, “merits no recognition or support as a Catholic organization” and is mostly funded by “secular organizations supporting legal abortion in this country and abroad.”