The Department of Health and Human Services included a provision in its recent decision to make birth control a preventative service that would allow religious groups to refuse to cover contraceptive services.

The federal agency today announced it would be following the Institute of Medicine’s recommendation to include birth control and contraceptive services on a list of preventative care as the Affordable Care Act is implemented. This would allow women to receive insurance coverage for birth control without co-payments. However, the agency included a provision that would allow religious groups to not offer contraceptive coverage.

According to HHS’s recent press release: ”The administration also released an amendment to the prevention regulation that allows religious institutions that offer insurance to their employees the choice of whether or not to cover contraception services. This regulation is modeled on the most common accommodation for churches available in the majority of the 28 states that already require insurance companies to cover contraception.”

Catholics for Choice, a Catholic reproductive rights advocacy group, has condemned this “expansive refusal clause.”

In a press release from the group today, Catholics for Choice president Jon O’Brien said:

In allowing religious institutions to refuse to include contraceptive services in the health insurance plans they offer their employees, the Obama administration has once again sided with the Catholic bishops over the needs of women and their families. The multi-billion dollar Catholic healthcare industry has a lot of influence with this administration, influence that it has now used to allow religious institutions to ride roughshod over the needs of their workers. Not only that, it ignores the consciences of those who decide that to use a modern method of family planning is what is best for them and their families.

In his inaugural address, President Obama promised to “restore science to its rightful place” in policy decisions. Scientists told him that comprehensive family planning is preventive healthcare for women. Sadly, his administration has just said that as far as women’s health is concerned, science comes second to the demands of the Catholic bishops—and will go so far as to allow religious institutions to deny coverage of preventive healthcare to women regardless of their individual beliefs.

The vast majority of people, including Catholics, in the United States have used a method of family planning banned by the Vatican. Sadly for those employed by many Catholic institutions, they will have to pay out of pocket for contraceptive services that others can access at no extra cost. For the latter, this is clearly good news; for the former, state-sanctioned discrimination is the order of the day.

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops urged Congress to support legislation that would allow the church and others to opt-out of providing contraception in health care insurance exchanges created through the Affordable Care Act once the Institute of Medicine announced it would be including birth control in its list of preventative services.

The U.S. Conference had released a statement asking lawmakers to dismiss the recommendation altogether. Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, the chairman of the conference’s Committee on Pro-Life Activities, said he “strongly opposes” mandated coverage of services such as “surgical sterilization … all FDA-approved birth control … and ‘education and counseling’ promoting these among all ‘women of reproductive capacity.’”

The Health and Human Services provision, however, does at least provide a narrow exemption.

According to The Hill:

The new guidelines exempt group health plans sponsored by certain religious employers. The guidelines define a religious employer as a nonprofit that:

• Has the inculcation of religious values as its purpose;

• Primarily employs persons who share its religious tenets; and

• Primarily serves persons who share its religious tenets.

O’Brien tells The Florida Independent that this “state-sanctioned discrimination” is “plain wrong” and represents an “oversight by the Obama administration.” He says that these “expansive refusal clauses” are “used and developed to deny people services.”

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