Kathleen Sebelius, secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), said last year's controversial health-care reform law -- dubbed "Obamacare" by its critics -- would provide no-cost coverage of drugs with abortion-inducing properties such as "ella," Plan B and Next Choice. The HHS action was expected. The department incorporated in its guidelines recommendations released July 19 by an Institute of Medicine committee.
The services will be required in insurance policies that begin their plan years Aug. 1, 2012, or thereafter, according to HHS.
Under the guidelines, all methods approved as contraceptives by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) would be included in a range of services offered to patients free of charge.
Emergency contraception, also known as the "morning-after" pill, is basically a heavy dose of birth control pills. While the two-step process can restrict ovulation in a woman or prevent fertilization, it also can block implantation of the early embryo in the uterine wall. The latter effect would cause an abortion, pro-life advocates point out.
Ella, though approved as emergency contraception by the FDA in 2010, is more closely related to the abortion drug RU 486, according to pro-life organizations. Like RU 486, it blocks production of the hormone progesterone, destroying the placenta that provides nutrition to the embryo and causing the tiny, unborn child's death, the American Association of Pro-life Obstetricians and Gynecologists says. Ella also can block implantation.
Pro-life advocates decried the Institute of Medicine recommendations both when they were announced and when they were accepted by HHS.
Upon their recommendation, Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, criticized the use of government funds to kill the unborn as "an abomination."
Jeanne Monahan, director of the Family Research Council's Center for Human Dignity, said Aug. 1 the requirements "will violate the consciences of millions."
The Obama administration included an amendment that allows religious institutions to choose whether to permit contraceptive coverage in their insurance plans, but Monahan called it "a fig leaf of conscience protection of certain churches that fulfill very specific criteria."
"eligious groups that provide social services, engage in missions work to people of different religious faiths, religious health insurance companies, let alone religious health care providers and individuals in such health plans are not protected from any discrimination whatever," Monahan said in a written statement. "The new rule will force many Americans to violate their consciences or refrain from participating in health care insurance, further burdening an already costly system."
The Planned Parenthood Federation of America and NARAL Pro-choice America -- two of the country's leading abortion rights organizations -- praised the new guidelines.
"Today is a historic victory for women's health and women across the country," Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards said in a written release.
The HHS guidelines also require health plans to cover without co-pay such services as counseling to prevent unintended pregnancies, testing for human papillomavirus for women over 30 years of age, screening for HIV and counseling on sexually transmitted infections.
Compiled by Tom Strode, Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press.
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