WASHINGTON (BP) -- A proposed federal rule requiring health insurance plans to cover contraceptives that can cause abortions should be rescinded immediately, Southern Baptist ethicist Richard Land told the Obama administration.
The president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) also urged the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to expand what he described as "very limited religious exemptions" for institutions opposed to providing such birth control under preventive services.
In a Sept 30 letter, Land protested HHS' announcement that the controversial 2010 health-care reform law -- titled the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act but dubbed "Obamacare" by its critics -- would require health plans and insurers to provide no-cost coverage of drugs with abortion-inducing properties. Under the guidelines issued Aug. 1, all methods approved as contraceptives by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will be included in a range of services offered to patients free of charge.
Those FDA-endorsed contraceptives include the emergency contraceptive Plan B, the intrauterine device (IUD) and "ella."
Emergency contraception, also known as the "morning-after" pill, is basically a heavy dose of birth control pills. While the normally 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. An IUD also can prevent implantation.
Ella, though approved as emergency contraception by the FDA in 2010 and labeled a "morning-after" pill by supporters, 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.
"The potential for these contraceptives to abort human life is disconcerting because it devalues life and violates the rights of the unborn," Land said in his letter that came at the end of the comment period on the guidelines. "In addition, abortion is a deeply divisive issue among Americans, with many seeing it as a violation of basic human ethics. Due to this contention, HHS should refrain from authorizing the use of taxpayer funds to provide for procedures and medications that do or could cause abortion."
The rule also will violate the right to religious liberty guaranteed in the First Amendment and long-standing protections for freedom of conscience, Land said. The regulation would do so by limiting exemptions to "churches, their integrated auxiliaries, and conventions or associations of churches, as well as ... the exclusively religious activities of any religious order." The exemptions will not cover such religious institutions as schools, hospitals and social service programs, he said.
The rule "is disrespectful of the role that religious groups play in educating and caring for America's families and youth, including the poor and disadvantaged," Land said. "We are especially concerned that if the exemption is not broadened, religious organizations will be forced to choose between their consciences and their social service work. Surely, many will choose to terminate operation of these services rather than provide contraceptives that would violate their sincerely held beliefs. Such an outcome would be devastating.
"Minimally, HHS should expand its conscience protections, preserving the religious freedom of Americans and encouraging religious entities to continue providing much needed social services," he said.
In his letter, Land pointed to Southern Baptists' long-standing support for the sanctity of human life and religious freedom. He cited 11 resolutions opposing abortion that were passed at Southern Baptist Convention annual meetings from 1980 to 2011. He also referenced the 2000 Baptist Faith and Message, which says human life begins at "conception." The convention has approved numerous resolutions backing expansive religious liberty protections, most recently in 2005 and 2011, Land said.
The Christian Medical Association and other pro-life organizations also wrote HHS to express their opposition to the proposed rule.
In its Sept. 28 comments, the Christian Medical Association said, "The mandate violates the religion and free speech clauses of the First Amendment of the Constitution, by coercing faith-based health care ministries to not only violate the very faith-based tenets that have motivated patient care for millennia, but also to pay for that violation."
Like Land, Christian Medical Association President David Stevens expressed concern about the impact on some seeking health care. "Such conscience-violating mandates will ultimately reduce patients' access to faith-based medical care, especially depriving the poor and medically underserved populations of such care," Stevens said.
The Planned Parenthood Federation of America and NARAL Pro-choice America -- two of the country's leading abortion rights organizations -- praised the new guidelines when they were issued.
Among "morning-after" pills approved by the FDA are Plan B and Next Choice. Under the regimen for the drugs, a woman takes a pill within 72 hours of sexual intercourse and another dose 12 hours later. Another "morning-after" pill, Plan B One-step, can be taken in a single dose within 72 hours.
Unless altered, the services outlined in the guidelines will be required in insurance policies that begin their plan years Aug. 1, 2012, or thereafter, according to HHS.
Tom Strode is Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press.
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