Bishop Libasci: Mandate requiring contraception coverage in health plans an unconscionable blow to religious freedom

This op-ed was originally published in the print edition of the Union Leader on Jan. 31, 2012.

A march for life and a renewed fight for the unborn on Monday, Jan. 23, I was in Washington, D.C., for the first time as the Bishop of Manchester to lend my voice and prayers to the thousands from across America who gathered at the National Mall for the annual March for Life. I joined hundreds of New Hampshire pilgrims, many of them young people from our Catholic schools, to bear witness for all the unborn who could not march for themselves.

Our purpose was to make our voices heard in the ears and hearts of our neighbors and elected officials. Our purpose was to affirm the sacredness of life and dignity of the human person, from conception to natural death.

How shocking and insulting, then, that at the same time we were traveling to Washington to compel our leaders to stand up for the fundamental right to life, the current administration was announcing new regulations that cut to the core of another fundamental right, the right to be free to live by our religious beliefs.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) recently announced that it would not change a rule that requires that virtually all private health plans include coverage of female sterilization procedures, contraceptives and abortifacients as “preventive services,” regardless of whether the insurer, employer or insured individual has a moral objection to such drugs and procedures. Although there is an exception to this mandate for “religious employers,” the term is defined so narrowly that most religious employers would not qualify, as they employ and serve people of other faiths.

This mandate treats a healthy pregnancy as a disease in need of “prevention,” like breast cancer or AIDS or other conditions that require safe and effective prevention and treatment. But pregnancy is not a disease — it is a gift from God.

Because New Hampshire Catholic Charities, Catholic hospitals and many Catholic schools and institutions in our state hire and serve non-Catholics, they would be forced to purchase health coverage that violates our moral and religious teaching. Almost all health insurers will be forced to include those “services” in the health policies they write.

And almost all individuals will be forced to buy that coverage as part of their policies.

Never in the history of this country has the government forced citizens to purchase a product that violates core moral and religious beliefs. I pray that members of the New Hampshire congressional delegation will cosponsor the Respect for Rights of Conscience Act (HR 1179, S 1467), which will ensure that those who participate in the health care system retain the right to provide, purchase, or enroll in health coverage that is consistent with their religious beliefs.

Everyone deserves access to life-affirming health care.

I believe that the health care reform law was intended to serve that goal. However, the effect of this mandate is just the opposite. The HHS rule pressures Catholic institutions to either violate their religious beliefs by purchasing products that are life-denying or simply drop their insurance coverage for their employees.

It is an unconscionable blow to religious freedom.

Peter Libasci is the Roman Catholic Bishop of Manchester.

Author: Bishop Peter Libasci

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