New Threat to Catholic Health Plans

U.S. Decision Could Force Contraception Coverage

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WASHINGTON, D.C., JAN. 26, 2001 (
A recent federal decision on contraceptive coverage may threaten all preventive health benefits for employees of Catholic business owners with more than 15 employees, a Catholic official has warned.

“Catholic organizations would simply have to cease providing insurance services to employees if the government were to attempt to force Catholic institutions” to cover contraception, Monsignor Timothy Thorburn told the National Catholic Register ( ).

Monsignor Thorburn, vicar general of the Diocese of Lincoln, Nebraska, administers the diocese´s health plan. It follows Catholic medical ethics — contraception and sterilization are not covered, but classes on natural family planning are. And employees receive a wide range of other preventive health care services.

But according to a Dec. 13 decision by the federal government´s Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the diocese may be guilty of discrimination against women because it provides dental checkups and vaccinations but not birth control pills.

The commission´s new ruling requires that businesses that provide benefits for preventive health care must also cover contraception. But the ruling did not address religious objections, which may provide an escape hatch for Catholic employers.

Mike O´Dea, executive director of the Christian medical group Christus Medicus, called the decision “a violation of a right of conscience and religious liberty.”

He has formed a coalition of 20 groups, including the Ave Maria School of Law, the Heritage Foundation, and the Family Research Council, to push for “legislation that would protect the rights of conscience in health care.”

Thirteen states have passed laws requiring businesses to cover contraception if they cover other prescription drugs or devices, although a California law is undergoing legal challenges brought by Catholic Charities of Sacramento.

The EEOC ruling sided with two women who filed a sex discrimination complaint against their employers. All parties must remain unnamed due to confidentiality requirements. The two employers covered surgical sterilization for men and women, as well as basic preventive care like vaccinations, but did not cover prescription contraceptive pills.

The decision is based on Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and its 1978 amendment, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act. According to that act, employers must give equal treatment to women “affected by pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions.”

The businesses involved in the complaint argued that since pregnancy is not an “abnormal” condition, contraception is different from preventive medicine. But the commission ruled, “It is widely recognized in the medical community that pregnancy is a medical condition that poses risks to, and consequences for, a woman.”

A July 25 letter from the U.S. National Conference of Catholic Bishops stated, “We object to a government mandate for contraceptive coverage generally. At a time when tens of millions of Americans lack even the most basic health coverage, efforts to mandate elective drugs and devices which raise serious moral problems and can pose their own health risks are misguided. In addition, any such mandate will cause needless injustice if it does not provide full protection to those who object for reasons of conscience.”

Ellen Vargyas, legal counsel for the commission, pointed out that the ruling´s narrow scope means that despite its harsh language, it actually does not cover any health plan that follows Catholic teaching comprehensively.

In the Dec. 13 ruling, Vargyas continued, “These were secular employers. There was no religious [objection] raised in this case.” Therefore, a Catholic employer might still be able to argue that his religious rights trumped the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, although the act itself contains no “conscience clause” or religious exemption.

An employer with religious or moral objections to contraception should prepare to argue before the commission, Vargyas added. “I am not in a position to anticipate” whether such a defense would succeed, she said.

And if an employer provided no preventive health benefits at all, he could avoid the entire ruling. Vargyas noted, “Discrimination laws don´t require that an employer provide any specific benefit, or any benefits at all.”

The Pregnancy Discrimination Act explicitly states that employers are not required to pay for abortion under their health plans. However, that exception may be breaking down as the so-called morning-after pill becomes more widespread.

Pro-abortion activists consider the morning-after pill to be solely contraceptive, but the pill´s makers, as well as many doctors, note that it also frequently induces early term abortions. O´Dea said, “This is not just talking about preventing a pregnancy. We´re talking about also killing children.”

Vargyas said, “We´ve been asked, ´What about the morning-after pill?´ Another question neither asked nor answered” as yet by the EEOC.

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