The controversy began when the Department of Health and Human Services in January finalized a rule requiring private insurance plans to cover all FDA-approved contraceptives, including "emergency" ones such as Plan B and "ella" that can block implantation and kill the embryo -- an action that pro-life groups and many Christians view as an early abortion. The drugs would be free for employees.
The HHS rule included an exemption for most churches, but that exemption does not cover Christian colleges and schools or faith-based hospitals and social service programs. Programs such as Catholic Charities, Prison Fellowship and the Southern Baptist Convention's GuideStone Financial Resources would be affected. GuideStone's president released a statement before Obama's press conference saying simply, "we will not provide abortive contraceptives."
Obama said Friday that the burden on providing emergency contraceptives would fall on insurance companies, and that the coverage still would be free.
"If a woman's employer is a charity or a hospital that has a religious objection to providing contraceptive services as part of their health plan, the insurance company -- not the hospital, not the charity -- will be required to reach out and offer the woman contraceptive care free of charge without co-pays and without hassles," Obama said. "The result will be that religious organizations won't have to pay for these services and no religious institution will have to provide these services."
Religious leaders, though, were not pleased, and said the same problems with religious liberty remained.
"It is an attempt to deal with a matter of religious conviction with an accounting gimmick," Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, told Baptist Press.
Land and others said that an insurance company's money is fungible, and that a religious employer would still be providing the funding to pay for an employees' abortion-inducing drugs.
O.S. Hawkins, president of GuideStone Financial Recourses, called it an "approach that does not address the issues at hand for Southern Baptists who oppose so-called contraceptives that can and do cause an abortion." GuideStone provides health insurance coverage to 60,000 people, including pastors and missionaries.
"The President's statement today," said Hawkins, "is an insulting affront illustrating a basic lack of understanding that this issue will not be solved by sleight-of-hand word games. It is a fundamental matter of religious liberty that threatens the very coverage of those dedicated persons who serve our churches and affiliated organizations. GuideStone will never depart from the core convictions it has held dear for decades regarding the sanctity of life."
Obama's statement does "not take into account the needs of many of the oldest and largest church plans in the nation," GuideStone said.
(GuideStone's full statement follows this story.)
Said Land, "Obama showed a total lack of awareness of self-funded insurance programs like GuideStone. ... GuideStone cannot comply with this, because GuideStone would be forced to pay for abortifacients, which we find unconscionable."
"This administration," Land added, "has shown a very disturbing trend of when religious freedoms collide with sexual rights, sexual rights trump religious convictions every time. If the insurance company is forced to provide the coverage, the insurance company is going to pass the cost on to the person paying for the insurance -- us."
Rep. Chris Smith (R.-N.J.), a staunch pro-lifer in Congress, also criticized the move.
"The so-called new policy is the discredited old policy, dressed up to look like something else," Smith said. "It remains a serious violation of religious freedom. Only the most naïve or gullible would accept this as a change in policy. ... It still forces religious employers and employees who have moral objections to paying for abortion inducing drugs, sterilization and contraception to pay for these things, because it is still the employers who buy the coverage for their employees."
Planned Parenthood, the nation's largest abortion provider, applauded the Obama move.
"In the face of a misleading and outrageous assault on women's health, the Obama administration has reaffirmed its commitment to ensuring all women will have access to birth control coverage, with no costly co-pays, no additional hurdles, and no matter where they work," Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richard said. "We believe the compliance mechanism does not compromise a woman's ability to access these critical birth control benefits."
But Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, called it a "paperwork" gimmick.
"Liberals say keep your morals out of the bedroom, yet the President's plan forces everyone to pay the cost for someone else's contraceptive use in the bedroom," Perkins said. "That's not freedom, it's a mandate."
R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, said the Obama administration has wrongly labeled the issue one about "contraception."
"Millions of Americans naturally think of a contraceptive as a mechanism for preventing the fertilization of the woman's egg," Mohler wrote on his website. "They are unaware that the word has been redefined in medical, pharmacological and political contexts to refer to a mechanism for preventing either fertilization or the successful attachment of the fertilized egg to the uterine wall.
"This is not merely a matter of semantics," Mohler added. "Any intervention that prevents the fertilized egg from attaching to the uterine lining is an abortion. The Obama administration has mandated the inclusion of the so-called 'morning after pill' and other forms of 'emergency contraception' in qualified plans.
"Thus, only an accounting maneuver hides the fact that we will all be paying for chemical abortions under the President's prized Affordable Care Act."
Michael Foust is associate editor of Baptist Press. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).
Following is the complete statement from GuideStone:
GuideStone Financial Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention, one of the largest church plans in the nation, was distressed to hear that the President's comments do not take into account the needs of many of the oldest and largest church plans in the nation. GuideStone's medical plan, like that of many other established church plans, is self-funded which means it pays benefits directly instead of using a third-party insurance company as the source of benefit payments. This self-funded approach to healthcare coverage, which is common among many historic and large church plans, was completely ignored by the President in his comments.
The comments today appear to reflect a narrow and inadequate approach that does not address the issues at hand for Southern Baptists who oppose so-called contraceptives that can and do cause an abortion. Even more troubling is that the broader issue of religious freedom was only given lip service but no serious consideration in the President's remarks.
As stated by GuideStone's President O.S. Hawkins, "The President's statement today is an insulting affront illustrating a basic lack of understanding that this issue will not be solved by sleight-of-hand word games. It is a fundamental matter of religious liberty that threatens the very coverage of those dedicated persons who serve our churches and affiliated organizations. GuideStone will never depart from the core convictions it has held dear for decades regarding the sanctity of life."
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