The HHS Mandate and Conscience Made Simple – Five Things You Should Do Now

By now, most every Catholic and non-Catholic citizen is aware of the important debate taking place over President Obama’s effort to force Catholic organizations and institutions to provide sterilization coverage and contraceptive coverage, including abortion-inducing drugs, in the health insurance plans they offer their employees.

The negative reaction to this mandate crosses lines of religion, age and sex. Many Catholics with whom I have spoken are upset, as are people of other faiths, Christian and non-Christian alike. While many of these people are opposed to contraceptives, I daresay that many others are not opposed to contraception, but are mightily opposed to the government mandating that people must violate their consciences.

One thing is certain; we must become educated about this issue and take steps to oppose the mandate. Many I have spoken to want to know what they can do, where they can learn more. There are still many people who do not have a clear understanding of the problem. I hope this article helps build awareness, knowledge and engagement.

What is the HHS Mandate and What does it require?

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (“PPACA”, also referred to by the media as “Obamacare”) was passed by the U.S. Congress and signed into law by President Obama on March 23, 2010. As with all laws, Federal Regulations are developed to define how to comply with the law.

On August 1, 2011, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (“HHS”) issued a “final interim rule” (the “HHS Mandate”) that would require almost all private health care plans to provide their members, at no out of pocket cost to the insured, access to female sterilization procedures and contraceptive prescription drugs, including abortion-inducing drugs. A very narrow “religious exemption” was offered to religious employers who hire members of their own faith, serve only members of their own faith, and whose mission is to inculcate that faith. This exemption would not cover religious schools, hospitals, charities and other such groups. It would not cover health insurance providers or any other private employer… or even private individuals in the market for health insurance. In other words, the exemption would likely protect only small churches with minimal staffs and no outreach to members of other faiths. This regulation would require compliance effective August 1, 2013 for those religious-affiliated groups who object… one year later than the rest of the population… one additional year to figure out how to violate conscience.

It was hoped for by many who opposed this mandate as a matter of conscience that this “final interim rule” would be reworked or rescinded altogether in order to respect the private conscience of those who oppose such procedures and drugs.

On February 10, 2012, after seeing the firestorm of opposition the regulation generated among the Catholic and non-Catholic population alike, President Obama announced an “accommodation” that he said answered the objections of the Catholic Church. In reality, the accommodation (1) effectively expanded the mandate to include churches and (2) used accounting and administrative techniques to make it appear that the objecting churches and religious-affiliated organizations are not involved in offering or paying for the mandated services and procedures.

Bottom line… employees covered by these employers will have free access under this regulation to drugs and procedures that are opposed to life and the moral doctrines of these employers. And that access would be under the plan they are forced to offer. Semantics and accounting techniques might change perceptions but they do not change reality.

Of course there is another option, we are told… “Don’t offer your employees health coverage and pay onerous penalties instead.” It should be clear to all that neither of these options is morally acceptable.

The Problem Extends Beyond Religious Organizations & Institutions

Possibly lost in the reporting of this sad situation is the clear fact that it is not just churches and religious institutions, schools, hospitals and charities that are affected; the mandate also is imposed on the general public and all private employers.

Consider the owners and shareholders of companies who are affected. Many of these individuals are also opposed on moral grounds by their consciences to the idea of paying for and providing these drugs and procedures. What is their recourse? Can the state coerce them to commit what their consciences and churches believe to be sinful?

Also consider private individuals whose health insurance premiums will help fund contraceptives, abortion-inducing drugs and female sterilization for the purpose of preventing or ending human life; not for preventing or treating disease. Can the state coerce them to commit what their consciences and churches believe to be sinful?

Effect on Society and the Common Good

The Catholic Church and other religious organizations are among the largest providers of charity, heath care and education in this country. Unless this mandate is rescinded or these groups choose civil disobedience, they will likely have to close their doors. Think about that – no more Catholic Charities… no more Catholic Relief Services… no more Catholic schools and hospitals… no more Catholic Adoption Services… no more Catholic nursing and assisted-living facilities. Is this what the government really wants? Instead of attacking these institutions, the government should be encouraging them.

Also lost in the debate is the moral truth and urgency of the Church’s teachings. God is the giver of life and the life he gives is his gift to both society and the person conceived; a human person with a God-given Dignity that must be respected for there to be justice in this world. The “product of pregnancy” is not a disease, but the very children who are to make up the next generation if they are allowed to live. To cooperate in the effort to prevent those lives from beginning or to end them once begun is a crime against that person, society and God.

If the God-given right to life is not urgently and courageously promoted and defended, our nation suffers and continues its downward spiral into immorality and decay.

If our right to live these beliefs without interference by the government is not promoted and defended, the only rights we will retain are those grudgingly allowed us by the government. The unalienable rights recognized by the U.S. Constitution will be effectively a lost piety of the past. Whether or not one is opposed morally to contraception does not matter for this last point. The President of a Baptist University asked today, “If the government can force Catholic monks to dispense birth control, what can’t the government do?”

Five Things You Can Do to Now to Stop the HHS Mandate

So what can I do? Here are five things you can do now to help stop this mandate:

  1. Become an informed Catholic and citizen – There are many resources available to learn more about this issue. Links are provided below. Make the time to educate yourself so that you can, first, know for yourself what is at stake and second, become able to effectively discuss the issues with your family and friends.
  2. Actively engage and recruit others to the cause – We need to expand the number of people engaged in this struggle and you can help accomplish this. Forget that old adage that one should never discuss religion and politics; this is no time for timidity.
  3. Actively and charitably engage your elected leaders – This is not the time to be silent; call, email and send letters and telegrams to your congressmen, senators and president.
  4. Financially support those who are taking the fight into the courts. Belmont Abbey College and EWTN are just two that come to mind. Open your checkbooks now.
  5. Pray – Never forget about or despair of the power of prayer. Pray for our bishops who are leading the good fight. Pray for our political leaders, both those who are promoting the mandate and those who oppose it. Pray daily for God’s moral truth to once again shine on this land and inform our government’s and citizens’ thoughts and deeds. I believe that family prayer including a family rosary prayed daily is critical.

Into the deep…

Links to Resources

Related Article – Eight Compelling Answers for Common Objections to the Catholic Position on the HHS Mandate

U.S. Bishops Action Alert on Conscience Protection (practical steps you can take)

Cardinal Urges Senate Support of ‘Respect for Rights of Conscience Act’

Preventive Services Backgrounder

Bishops Renew Call to Legislative Action on Religious Liberty

Six Things Everyone Should Know About The HHS Mandate

White House Misrepresents Its Own Contraceptive Mandate

U.S. Bishops Vow to Fight HHS Edict


Deacon Mike Bickerstaff, Editor-in-Chief for The Integrated Catholic Life™, is the Director of Adult Education and Evangelization at his parish and a deacon of the Roman Rite for the Archdiocese of Atlanta.


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About the Author

Deacon Michael Bickerstaff is the Editor in chief and co-founder of the The Integrated Catholic Life.™ A Catholic Deacon of the Roman Rite for the Archdiocese of Atlanta, Deacon Bickerstaff is assigned to St. Peter Chanel Catholic Church where he is the Director of Adult Education and Evangelization.

He is a co-founder of the successful annual Atlanta Catholic Business Conference; the Chaplain of the Atlanta Chapter of the Woodstock Theological Center’s Business Conference; and Chaplain of the St. Peter Chanel Faith at Work Business Association and co-founder and Chaplain of the Marriages Are Covenants Ministry, both of which serve as models for similar parish-based ministries.

He and his wife have two adult children, one daughter-in-law and three grandchildren.

NB: The views I express on this site are my own. I am not an official spokesman for either my parish or diocese.

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