Catholic Bishops Urge Congress to Advance Conscience-Protection Legislation

By Patrick Ryan | July 25, 2011 | 3:15 PM EDT

Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (AP photo)

( - The nation’s Roman Catholic bishops and religious conservatives are backing new legislation that would prevent Obamacare from requiring insurance coverage of abortion or contraception.

H.R. 1179, the Respect for Rights of Conscience Act, would prevent any new mandates under health-care reform from being used to disregard Americans’ freedom of conscience, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) said.

“Those who sponsor, purchase and issue health plans should not be forced to violate their deeply held moral and religious convictions in order to take part in the health care system or provide for the needs of their families or their employees,” Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, chairman of the USCCB Committee on Pro-Life Activities, wrote in a July 22 letter.

DiNardo said the legislation, sponsored by Reps. Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.) and Dan Boren (D-Okla.), is especially needed in light of a July 19 report, issued by the Institute of Medicine, which calls on the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to provide free contraceptives for women through Obamacare.

The IOM report recommended for “consideration as a preventive service for women: the full range of Food and Drug Administration-approved contraceptive methods, sterilization procedures, and patient education and counseling for all women with reproductive capacity.”  

DiNardo said the bishops see the possibility of HHS mandating taxpayer coverage of contraception as a clear threat to freedom of conscience.

“To force such an unacceptable choice would be as much a threat to universal access to health care as it is to freedom of conscience,” DiNardo added.

The Institute of Medicine, an independent organization that works outside of government to provide advice to decision makers and the public, recommended that HHS provide contraceptives for all women with no co-pay to prevent unintended pregnancies under the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare.  

According to the IOM report, “evidence exists that greater use of contraception within the population produces lower unintended pregnancy and abortion rates nationally.”

The report mentioned contraceptives along with eight other preventive services for women, including improved screening for cervical cancer, services for pregnant women such as screening for gestational diabetes, and “screening and counseling for all women and adolescent girls for interpersonal and domestic violence in a culturally sensitive and supportive manner.”

Offering contraceptives with no co-pay would be economical, the report said, since “it should be noted that contraception is highly cost-effective.”

Lois Uttley, co-founder of the organization Raising Women’s Voices, endorsed the idea of offering contraceptives with no co-pay, as a means of addressing the problem of unplanned pregnancies.

“We know that when pregnancies are not planned and spaced carefully that there can be serious health dangers to both the woman and her baby,” Uttley told “So we think that making contraception more affordable will help women and families plan and space pregnancies appropriately. And that’s really what this recommendation is for, to make contraception more affordable.”

Religious conservatives, however, were quick to label the proposal as a government endorsement of contraception.

Mandi Campbell, the legal director for the Liberty Center for Law and Policy, said the Institute’s recommendation about “contraceptives” is highly problematic.

“It’s really not narrowed to contraceptives, though that is a huge concern, considering that medications or drugs that are considered ‘emergency contraceptives,’ also act as abortifacients, ’” Campbell told

“We’re talking about Ella, which was just approved by the FDA last year and actually has a very similar makeup, molecular makeup, to (the abortion-inducing drug) RU-46 (mifepristone), which the FDA just produced a report out to Congress that shows 14 women have died and 2,200 have been seriously injured as a result of taking RU-486.

“They call these women’s ‘health’ programs, or ‘preventive care’ programs, and really they’re not for women’s health at all,” Campbell told

“For the betterment of the woman, they should be advocating programs like abstinence and things like that, in order to avoid sexually-transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancies,” she added.

Campbell said the federal government spends $16.50 on contraceptives or comprehensive sex education programs for every $1 it spends on abstinence education.  

Cardinal DiNardo, meanwhile, said that respect for conscience rights in health care has received bipartisan support for decades.

He cited the Church Amendment, a 1973 conscience protection measure sponsored by Sen. Frank Church (D-Idaho), that Congress passed to protect hospitals and health-care providers from being discriminated against for their objection to abortion, sterilization and other procedures, and the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program, which exempts religiously affiliated health plans from any contraceptive mandate.

The Respect for Rights of Conscience Act has been referred to committee.