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Obama Administration, Catholic Leaders Clash Over Contraception Mandate

February 6, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Catholic leaders are pushing back against a new Department of Health and Human Services ruling requiring employers who offer health insurance to provide contraception free of charge. While churches are exempt from the rules, Catholic hospitals and universities must comply. Betty Ann Bowser reports on the controversy.
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RAY SUAREZ: Now to the continuing fallout over the Obama administration’s recent decision on covering contraceptives in insurance plans.

Leaders in the Catholic community are pushing back hard against a new mandate that requires coverage of contraceptives under the health reform law.

NewsHour health correspondent Betty Ann Bowser reports on the battle lines from both sides.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Holy Ghost Catholic Church in downtown Denver is a popular parish with a chief mission of serving the poor. Yesterday, the focus was not on charity. It was on a new federal regulation regarding health insurance.

From the pulpit, Father Michael Warren had strong words.

REV. MICHAEL WARREN, Holy Ghost Catholic Church: The president of the United States, who has recently made a decision to impose upon Catholic institutions, hospitals, schools, charities that they must provide to their employees coverage for contraception, coverage for sterilization, coverage for drugs that would induce abortion, without choice, this is in direct contradiction to our Gospel values.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: When Father Warren finished his homily, the congregation broke out in wild applause.

(APPLAUSE)

BETTY ANN BOWSER: And when the mass ended, it was clear most of his flock stood behind him.

DR. ANDREW SCHREFFLER, churchgoer: Well, I think it’s atrocious. Not only is it bad medicine, but it tramples on our First Amendment rights.

BRITTANY KERLIN, churchgoer: I feel that it’s an affront on my citizenship. Entirely about religious freedoms. I am obviously against contraception, but we live in a free country.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: The new rule was issued last month by the Department of Health and Human Services. Not only did it say employers who offer health insurance must provide contraception, they must also do it free of charge. Churches are exempt from the regulation, but because Catholic hospitals and universities serve many Americans who aren’t Catholic, the Administration said they must comply.

At the White House, Press Secretary Jay Carney explained.

JAY CARNEY, White House press secretary: The new guidelines require most private health plans to cover preventive services, including contraception, for women without charging a co-pay, co-insurance or a deductible. The guidelines were recommended by the non-partisan Independent Institute of Medicine.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: The new rule grew out of an IOM report last year that recommended a major expansion of birth control services to women.

The report said in part, women with unintended pregnancies account for almost half of pregnancies in the U.S., and those women are more likely to smoke, consume alcohol, be depressed and experience domestic violence. The IOM also said, expanded birth control services to women will cut down on the number of abortions and make women healthier.

The Obama administration says 28 states already have similar mandates requiring contraceptive coverage.

But some Catholic leaders say the states have broader exemptions than the new federal mandate.

Marcia Greenberger is co-president of the National Women’s Law Center in Washington. She supports the new federal rule.

MARCIA GREENBERGER, National Women’s Law Center: It’s essential for women’s health and for the health of their children and ultimately the health of their whole family. And that’s why the Institute of Medicine, all of the scientists and medical experts said that contraception is an essential health benefit that should be available without co-pays, without deductibles.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: But the scope of the new regulation raises complex legal and moral questions.

John Garvey is the president of the Catholic University of America in Washington.

JOHN GARVEY, Catholic University of America: It is not about whether the health care law ought to provide for or even insist on coverage of contraceptive care for women. It is about whether every institution that provides a health care plan ought to be obliged to pay for that, even if they have religious objections to it.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Garvey is also a legal scholar who focuses on constitutional law. He teaches a class weekly at the university and believes it doesn’t matter that the students they serve are not all Catholics.

JOHN GARVEY: It requires us to contradict in our actions the very lessons that we’re teaching with our words in classes and in our daily activities at the university. It makes us hypocrites in front of the students that we’re trying to educate.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: But many university employees and students on the school’s health plan have used birth control and want the school to comply with the regulation.

Twenty-seven-year-old Erin McCarthy, a non-practicing Catholic, is studying for her master’s in social work there. Right now, she says she can’t afford to pay for birth control out of pocket.

ERIN MCCARTHY, graduate student, Catholic University of America: A generic would cost $30 a month, something like that, which, you know, it may not seem like a lot, but times 12, without a full-time job, it adds up — $30 can buy groceries for a few weeks, so –

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Recent studies have found the vast majority of Catholic women use birth control at some point in their lives.

And Greenberger believes it’s a woman’s right to have coverage.

MARCIA GREENBERGER: We don’t see families of eight to 12 children these days in religious pews, whatever the religion may be, because of the widespread use of contraception.

And that’s really reflective of the recognition that contraception is essential for women’s health. It’s essential to have healthier children. And, of course, it means that for the well-being of the whole family unit.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Anthony Picarello, general counsel for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, says that’s not the point.

ANTHONY PICARELLO JR., general counsel, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops: Whether or not individual Catholics or others in society happen to agree with that is really not the issue. Instead, it’s the question of whether the government can force this religious institution that happens to have these commitments to violate those beliefs as a matter of federal law.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: The American Civil Liberties Union and other organizations in support of the Obama administration say the rule is not an infringement on religious liberty, because women are still free to follow their own beliefs. And, at this point, institutions like Catholic University can apply for a one-year extension to the mandate before having to comply.

But Picarello warns the bishops will still look for ways to stop it.

ANTHONY PICARELLO JR.: The bishops are highly motivated to pursue every means legally available to them to get rid of this mandate. And they will do it by litigation if they have to, by legislation if they can, by public advocacy. But, basically, they’re not going to stop until it’s gone.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Supporters of the mandate hope it will not be expanded to cover Catholic institutions outside of the church.

MARCIA GREENBERGER: To broaden that exception to well over a million women and their families would be terrible health policy in this country. It’s too essential for our efforts with respect to infant mortality, maternal mortality, the health and future of this country. And I put it in those major terms because that’s really what contraception is all about.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: The new rule takes effect in August, but religious institutions like Catholic University can file for a one-year exemption.