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Religious Groups Want Relief From Birth Control Mandate

Faith-based health providers got a chance to vent about new federal rules that require them to offer prescription contraceptives as part of their health insurance plans at a House subcommittee hearing today. They also proposed some changes.

But backers of the rules say the revisions sought by opponents would render the requirement meaningless.

Right now, the religious exemption included in the rules "is so narrow that it excludes virtually all Catholic hospitals, elementary and secondary schools, colleges and universities, and charitable organizations," Jane Belford, chancellor of the Archdiocese of Washington, told the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health.

As a result, her organization wouldn't be exempt, she said, and it would have to start offering contraception and sterilization services as part of the health plan it provides to its 3,800 employees.

That change would be anathema to her group and others in the same situation, she said. "Catholic organizations cannot effectively and persuasively communicate the church's teaching that contraception and sterilization are immoral if they simultaneously pay for contraceptives for their employees," she said.

William Cox, head of the Alliance of Catholic Health Care, a California-based group of hospitals and other health care facilities, said most of the entities in his organization have been able to evade a similar state contraceptive coverage law either by dropping prescription coverage or by becoming a "self-insured" health plan, which puts it outside the reach of state mandates.

The federal requirement, however, leaves them no such option.

That's just fine with backers of the rules, who say a woman's access to prescription contraception should be determined by her own conscience, not that of her employer.

"Why should an employer decide for a woman whether she can access the health care services that she and her doctor decide are necessary," said Rep. Jan Schakowsky, an Illinois Democrat. "Why are we talking about allowing some employers to put up a barrier to access at a time when women are struggling to afford and access health care?"

The religious groups, however, want one of two solutions to what they see as an untenable position.

One is for the Obama administration to broaden the exemption in the contraception requirement. It currently allows only organizations that proselytize, primarily hire people who belong to that religion, and primarily serve only people of that religion to be exempt.

The other is for Congress to pass the "Respect for Rights of Conscience Act," a bill that would exempt employers, insurers, and health care providers from providing "specific items or services... contrary to... religious beliefs or moral convictions."

Democrats, however, say that bill is too vaguely written. It could let employers drop coverage not just for contraception, but for things like treatment for alcohol and drug dependence, on the grounds that use of those substances is sinful, said Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc.). The same might apply for blood transfusions, or even to AIDS or HIV patients, since some religions disapprove of homosexuality, she said.

At times the debate got testy.

Several times during the hearing, Jon O'Brien, president of the abortion-rights group Catholics for Choice, pointed out that despite the church's teachings, the vast majority of Catholic women in the U.S. use contraceptives and support their coverage in employer health plans.

Pennsylvania Republican Rep. Tim Murphy, a Catholic, grew visibly upset by those remarks. "Asking a group in a survey whether they've acted or thought of acting in a certain way that runs counter to the church's teachings is no more a moral code than asking people if they ever drove over the speed limit is a foundation for eliminating all traffic laws," said Murphy.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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