In a move that stirred up religious institutions across the nation, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced Jan. 20 that nonprofit institutions that do not currently provide coverage for contraceptives in their employee insurance plans will have to comply by Aug. 1, 2013.
The changes come as part of the sweeping healthcare reform that became law in 2010, which mandated a large variety of changes in healthcare coverage to which all employers must adhere.
Religious groups across the country, including Jesuit-Catholic universities, have spoken out against the move by the federal government, saying it violates their First Amendment right to religious practices. Just as Quakers are not obligated to serve in the military, many have argued that religious nonprofit institutions should not be required to provide contraceptives to their employees. Boston College also spoke out about the policy.
“Like all religiously affiliated institutions, we are deeply disappointed with the president’s decision, as it puts the University, as a Catholic institution, at odds with its fundamental belief regarding the sanctity of life,” said University Spokesman Jack Dunn. “We continue to hope that the exemption will be more widely extended for religious institutions so as not to force us into a conflict with our core values.”
In a letter to Secretary of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities, of which BC is a member, wrote in support of an exemption for religiously affiliated institutions.
“Compliance with these new rules would force us to deny our religious institutional heritage and identity by helping our students to act contrary to Catholic teaching and belief,” the letter said.
The Affordable Care Act, as the reform is called, will allow employees to access contraceptives and other preventive services without co-pay or other cost to the patient.
Advocates for the bill say that contraception and preventive services are imperative for the overall health of a person, and that by including religiously-affiliated institutions in the clause, the Obama administration rightfully gives employees across America access to such services. Many also argue that although the clause mandates that institutions provide coverage for contraception in their insurance plans, it always remains the patient’s decision whether or not to use such products.
Representative Chellie Pingree (D-ME), supported the decision of Obama’s administration.
“This is a good compromise between the interests of religious freedom and the interests of public health,” Pingree said. “It prevents discrimination and it’s more fair. This is an essential service to women. To deny it on religious grounds is to make it more expensive and discriminatory.”
Surveys conducted by the Guttmacher Institute and the National Survey of Family Growth by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that 99 percent of sexually active women in the United States, including 98 percent of Catholic women, have used contraceptive devices.
Religious institutions will continue to examine the law and lobby for an exemption on the basis of religious practice.