Moral Coercion: Why Religious Institutions Will Keep Fighting Obamacare (Commentary)

By Meaghan Miracle ’13

The recent Supreme Court ruling affirming the Affordable Care Act (ACA) served as a confirmation that religious institutions will soon be forced to provide services in violation of their deeply held beliefs. While the court didn’t specifically address the regulation that requires contraception to be provided under employer-based health care plans, by allowing the law to stand under other challenges that provision is now in full-effect.  For many institutions the ACA will take effect as soon as August 1, in time for the upcoming school year.

The provision of the ACA still at issue is a regulation promulgated by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) that requires most health insurance plans to cover, at no added cost, the full range of FDA-approved contraceptive methods and sterilization procedures, or pay a fine of $2,000 per full-time employee. Efforts in Congress to overturn it have failed. Though the rule exempts certain religious employers, the definition is narrowly defined so that religious-based universities and many social service providers do not meet the exemption.

As written, this rule overrides current state laws in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Catholic University of America joined 42 Catholic dioceses, schools, hospitals, and social service agencies in filing suit in federal court. The lawsuit alleges the mandate violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), the First Amendment and the Administrative Procedure Act. It asks for declaratory judgment on such violations and an order vacating the mandate. At least 22 similar lawsuits have been filed. Catholics view this as an unprecedented intrusion on rights they have had since the founding of this nation. For them, a lawsuit was a means of last resort.

Why all the fuss over contraception? Catholics believe some of these are abortifacients, or substances thought to induce abortion. Providing them stands in direct contradiction to deeply held religious beliefs about the value of human life. Take for example the drug Ella, which is labeled by the FDA as an “emergency contraceptive” and thus covered free of charge under the mandate. Ella’s chemical makeup is eerily similar to the abortion drug RU-486. Ella provides contraceptive coverage for up to five days after unprotected sex, and has been described as working to affect implantation of an already fertilized egg. This is ironic because the ACA clearly prohibits any federal mandate to cover abortion as an essential health benefit.

Catholics feel called to care for the poor, hungry, sick and the homeless – not just to their own members, but to the global population. In fact, many Catholics advocate for universal health care as a basic human right. Pope Benedict XVI has even insisted such coverage affirms the ordained dignity of the human person and is a moral imperative of the common good. Catholic hospitals account for the largest non-governmental provider of health care in the U.S. The HHS mandate does not allow them to serve others on their own terms.

Proponents of the preventative services provision in question claim this is only a matter of women’s rights. In practical terms, this “conflict” is a red herring; more than 90-percent of employer-based insurance plans already cover prescription contraceptives, three times the proportion that did so just a decade ago. The drugs are freely available in the marketplace and nothing prevents the government from distributing them or making them available under other plans, such as a public option.

Even if this truly were a conflict between religious freedom and women’s rights, should our First Amendment, enumerated and recognized since 1789, bow to the notion of women’s rights found under the guise of privacy supposedly in the Ninth Amendment?

In addition, one should distinguish between allowing certain lifestyle choices to be available and forcing groups to fund others’ lifestyle choices. With every right to choose is an implied right not to exercise that choice. The right of religious institutions to live in accordance with their conscience goes way back to the Quakers’ conscious objection to participate in war. The Obama administration is asking Catholics to put their obligation to the state before their duty to obey God’s laws.

Though the highest court has upheld the ACA, this is only the beginning with respect to the legal battles it is sure to bring. Catholics and others concerned with their First Amendment rights will not easily give up what they hold to be a basic fundamental freedom. Those unconcerned with contraceptives being provided should ponder the chilling effects this forced provision has on the name of any exercise of religion.

Read the legal complaint here.



  1. John T. Billings '13 · · Reply

    Great article. And we can’t forget about the members of religious institutions. In my view, business owners who have a religious objection to the use of abortifacients should not be forced to act against their conscious either.

    1. John T. Billings '13 · · Reply

      * conscience

  2. annonymous · · Reply

    Business owners who have a religious objection to the use of abortifacients.. should learn to keep business and their personal beliefs separate. Tax dollars blah blah. We all pay taxes that go mostly to war and what religion is OK with that. This isn’t any different than all the other immoral things our money go to like capital punishment- how do you catholics feel about that? Not complaining as much about that huh?

    This was a good article by the way, just sharing about I feel about the whole thing.

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