By Stephanie Simon
DENVER (Reuters) - A small Catholic college in Ohio said Tuesday it was dropping health insurance coverage for students rather than comply with a federal mandate that the plan provide free birth control.
The Franciscan University of Steubenville "will not participate in a plan that requires us to violate the consistent teachings of the Catholic Church on the sacredness of human life," according to a bulletin to students posted on the university's website.
Not only will the university drop its own plan, but it will no longer require its undergraduates to carry insurance, the bulletin said. "We didn't want to put them in a situation where they would have to violate their conscience," said Michael Hernon, a vice president at Franciscan University.
Fewer than 200 of the 2,500 students at the campus in southeast Ohio had been buying insurance from the university, Hernon said.
The Obama administration announced earlier this year that insurance plans have to provide free contraception starting this summer, including the "morning-after pill," which prevents pregnancy if taken within a few days of unprotected sex.
The administration considers birth control a preventive service which must be covered by all plans, akin to diabetes screening, childhood immunizations or mammograms.
The Catholic Church teaches that the use of artificial contraception is a sin, though polls show the vast majority of Catholic women of reproductive age have used birth control at some point. Many Christians consider the morning-after pill to be an abortifacient because it can prevent a fertilized egg from implanting in the womb.
Obama tried to accommodate Catholic outrage over the mandate by giving religious institutions an extra year to comply and by assuring them they would not have to pay for the birth control coverage themselves; their insurers would pick up the tab.
That appeased some Catholic groups but many others, including the powerful U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, remain implacably opposed.
Several Catholic and evangelical Christian universities have challenged the contraceptive mandate in court. Those cases have not yet come to trial. Hernon said Franciscan University is weighing a lawsuit.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Supreme Court is considering a challenge to the broad health-care overhaul that is one of Obama's signature domestic accomplishments. If the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is invalidated by the Supreme Court, the contraceptive mandate would likely fall by the wayside as well.
With the new health insurance year set to start in August, however, administrators at Franciscan University chose not to wait for the court's ruling. In addition to the contraception mandate, they said they were concerned that premiums for the student plan would rise because the Affordable Care Act also mandates other specific services be covered.
So the bulletin advised students that they should begin to figure out "how you are going to provide for accidents or illnesses."
The university will maintain its health insurance plan for faculty, for now. That plan does not cover birth control. Hernon said administrators are "looking at all the options" as they decide how, or whether, to continue the plan in the future if the contraceptive mandate is upheld.
The university, which was founded 60 years ago to serve World War Two veterans, is ranked as one of the top-tier private colleges in the Midwest. It boasts on its website that its academics and culture are "grounded in a passionately Catholic faith tradition."
(Editing by Todd Eastham)