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February 13, 2012

Health vs. Religion

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Service Kathleen Sebilius announced recently the Obama Administration's rollout of the regulations regarding the national healthcare initiative.


The law has already been the focus of more political fallout and media coverage than just about any recent subject. In fact, if you listen to any of the four current contenders for the GOP presidential nomination, the first task of the new president will be the rollback of this law.


Hidden among the thousands of pages of detail on how doctors and hospitals must operate under this law is a provision requiring all providers of health services to large populations to provide women's reproductive health services coverage.


Reproductive health services in the context of national healthcare include birth control, and in some cases, even abortion services for their employees.


The Obama Administration apparently understood what they were getting into with this. Initially, they offered an exemption for healthcare providers affiliated with a religious institution or entity.


They limited the exemption, though. The exemption only applies when these religiously-affiliated entities provide these services to a small class of patients, namely those who subscribe to their faith traditions.


The problem arises when you examine how these faith-based groups view their obligation for providing healthcare services. The easiest way to look at the true impact is to view Catholic health services institutions.


It doesn't take a theology major to see that telling a Catholic hospital that they have to offer covered services for birth control at their facilities is going to be a problem. Obviously, the Catholic Church has a slight liturgical issue with birth control.


Forcing the Catholic Church to offer a health insurance with contraceptive coverage to the employees who work for their health services corporation is akin to the situation a few years back where Muslim women were being prevented from wearing religiously-dictated full head covering scarves.


In that instance, President Obama was quick to argue for the importance of First Amendment protection of religious freedom. What's different now?


Catholic hospitals view their health services as a holistic obligation and mission to heal the sick of any denomination in whatever community they find themselves located. As proof, I was born at Saint Francis Hospital in Wilmington, DE. Born to an Episcopal mother and Baptist father, St. Francis nun/nurses didn't care one whit. That tradition carries on today.


The Obama Administration will have to be careful with this. In 2008, President Obama's electoral victory strategy included a heavy reliance on swing state voters.


A careful examination of those same voters suggests that a high percentage of them (PA, VA, OH and MI) fall into categories historically aligned with the Catholic Church. For President Obama to win a second term, he'll need every Reagan Democrat and a large number of independents to support his candidacy.


For an administration that prides itself on political savvy and has teed off on the quality of the GOP primary debate, Team Obama shows an unusual heavy-handed insensitivity here.


Former Massachusetts Governor, and leading GOP presidential contender, Mitt Romney could not have asked for a better issue. His own insensitivities, mostly related to his personal wealth versus mainstream America’s, will pale in the eyes of most voters when contrasted to an assault on religious freedom and expression.


Alienating Catholic voters is not a winning strategy ever, but especially not in the current political environment.


Faced with a revolt of Catholic voters, the Obama Administration tried a head feint to shift the focus away from their problem. In a hastily called press announcement last Friday, the President announced that instead of forcing faith-based employers to pay for women's health services that conflict with their faith, insurance companies would now be required to offer these services under mandate.


Sounds just peachy. Catholic employers wouldn't have to write a check for contraceptive services or the day-after abortion pill. Problem is no one asked the insurance companies how they would handle this.


Insurance companies don't eat the cost of mandated coverage; they simply pass those costs along to consumers through increased premiums.


Oops, we're right back to where we were when this whole nonsense started.


President Obama sees this as a very simple issue. He believes the right of women to have access to funded health services including contraception and abortifacients supersedes the free expression of religion.


In Mr. Obama's America, any argument to the contrary is disrespectful to women. No doubt this policy shift was focus group-tested, and the post-decision polling indicates that even among a majority of Catholics, a majority accept the compromise.


Problem: The Catholic Church is not known for paying much attention to polling data when it comes to the tenets of its faith. They answer to a higher power, whether President Obama recognizes that or not.


If the Obama Administration does not modify this regulation in order to respect the First Amendment and religious freedom, expect pulpits across the country to spread a message counter to his re-election interests.


The 2008 candidate of hope and change could well find himself hoping that voters will forget, and wishing he had changed his position sooner.


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