Contraception choices belong to employees, not employers

Yesterday, House Speaker John Boehner took to the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives to demand that the Obama administration reverse course on the enforcement of a regulation included in the Affordable Care Act requiring most employers' health insurance plans to cover no-cost access to women's preventative health care services, including access to contraception.

It is worth noting that this regulation already exempts insurance plans provided by certain religious employers, namely churches and other houses of worship. There are 28 states that require contraception to be covered in insurance plans. Of these, eight do not have an exemption for religious employers and this rule is nearly identical to exemptions that exist in Oregon, New York, and California. The Secular Coalition urged the Department of Health and Human Services, in a letter dated September 9, 2011, to eliminate this exemption or keep it as narrowly tailored as possible so as to not exclude millions of women from access to necessary health services.

This rule, finalized on January 20, kept that exemption fairly narrow, and means that religiously affiliated organizations such as hospitals, universities, and nonprofits must comply with the requirement that access to contraception be provided to all employees. Opponents have cried foul and insisted that this, in the words of Speaker Boehner, is "an unambiguous attack on religious freedom in our country."

It is nothing of the sort. We must draw a distinction between an individual's right to practice his or her religion without interference from the government and an organization's "right" to impose its religious views on its employees. Tom Picarello, general counsel for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, has insisted that the mandate be removed entirely because it would create problems for Catholics business owners who "can't in good conscience cooperate with this." He went on to say, "If I quit this job and opened a Taco Bell, I'd be covered by this mandate."

Yes he would, and rightly so. Mr. Picarello's religious liberty exists right up until the point where he begins to force it on his employees. Just as 98 percent of sexually active Catholic women and 99 percent of women in the general population have used contraception at some point in their lives, I would be willing to bet that a similar number of women employed at Mr. Picarello's hypothetical business would want access to contraception and reproductive care. In addition, dozens of Catholic institutions, such as DePaul University, already offers employees access to contraceptive care.

To be clear, this regulation does not require Catholic and other religious hospitals and charities to provide contraception to patients. That is another issue entirely and one that may benefit from some additional discussion.

What this rule does do is require that these employers provide access to these services in their prescription drug plans and health insurance policies, just as any other employer is required. The religiously affiliated business which opponents of this rule are seeking to exempt employ millions of people, many of whom do not share the religious views of their employer or even when they do, disagree with doctrinal teachings on the use of contraception. This rule protects the religious liberty of these individuals--allowing them to practice their religious beliefs individually and not be forced to make a choice between their job, their health, and their employer's religious views.

In enforcing this rule, the Department of Health and Human Services is respecting individual choice on the use of contraception and is in line with scientific consensus that access to contraceptive care provides women with substantial health benefits. For this, the Obama administration and HHS Secretary Sebelius deserve our praise.

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