Monday, February 14, 2011

Blurring the Line between the Separation of Church and State: How the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops Influences Health Care Choices for American Women

The culture wars are back and are being propelled by politicians and religious fanatics that do not understand the constitutional mandate separating church and state - forcing their religious agenda on American women at both the state and federal level.

A few days ago NPR reported on the remarkable feminist movement in Tunisia.  In many ways, the Tunisian feminist movement is far more advanced than the US feminist movement.  Tunisian women have had access to birth control since 1962 and abortion since 1965, while American women gained access to birth control in 1965 and access to abortion in 1973.  I was struck by the following quote from a long time Tunisian feminist activist:

The force of the Tunisian feminist movement is that we've never separated it from the fight for democracy and a secular society…We will continue our combat, which is to make sure that religion remains completely separate from politics.

Feminism -- women’s equality and reproductive rights – cannot advance unless religion is divorced from politics.  The current House Republican legislative agenda embodies the explicit merger of religion and politics and women have become the specific target of that agenda. 

If H.R.358, the so-called “Protect Life Act,” is enacted it will empower the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops to make even further insidious inroads into women’s health care choices.  Among other things, H.R.358 would allow health care facilities the freedom to refuse a woman an emergency abortion or referral services for an emergency abortion even if doing so would end that woman’s life.  Even the Hyde Amendment provides federal funding of abortions to protect the life of the mother. 

The Catholic Health Association of the United States (CHA), which represents more than 2000 Catholic health care systems, endorsed H.R.358 on January 24th in a letter addressed to the sponsor of the legislation Congressman Joe Pitts (R-PA).  Currently, there are 100 cosponsors of this legislation.  Of those 100 cosponsors 5 are Democrats; 10 Republican women have also signed on as cosponsors. 

As a prominent member of the House bipartisan Pro-Life Caucus, Pitts is defending this dangerous legislation suggesting that there is nothing new in the legislation that differs from existing conscience protection law. 

Congressman Chris Smith (R-NJ) also initially defended himself against any suggestion that the “forcible rape” language in H.R.3’s “No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act” deviated from the language of Hyde Amendment.  Even though Congressman Smith relented last week and agreed to remove the language, as of Tuesday, February 8th the “forcible rape” language remains unchanged

Now Congressman Pitts is playing the same game but this time using the language of the Weldon Amendment.  Pitts claims H.R.358 only codifies the Weldon Amendment.  The Weldon Amendment or the federal conscience protection law was enacted in 2005 and has been extended every year since. 

The Weldon Amendment allows the government to withhold federal funding from any federal, state, or local entities that discriminate against doctors, hospitals or health plans that choose not to offer or cover abortion services. 

In 2008 the State of California worried that it would lose federal funding if it enforced its own law that required all health care facilities “…to provide or refer emergency abortions when the life or health of the pregnant woman is at risk.”  California sued in federal district court arguing that the Weldon Amendment was unconstitutional because it did not provide an exception for emergency abortions to protect the life or health of the mother and because it “…interfered with California's right to carry out its statute.”

The federal district court ruled against California and stated that the Weldon Amendment did not conflict with the federal Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act (EMTALA).  EMTALA was enacted in 1986 and requires health care facilities that receive Medicare or Medicaid to “…treat, stabilize or, if needed, transfer patients for appropriate care."  And the receiving hospital must accept the patient for emergency care.  So any women in need of a life saving abortion coming into a hospital that receives such funding would be required to perform the abortion or refer to a facility that could perform the abortion. 

H.R.358 would eliminate the EMTALA requirement specifically and solely for abortions.  A hospital receiving Medicare or Medicaid could quite literally let a woman die if she needed an emergency abortion and not lose its federal funding. 

So if H.R.358 becomes law would it also prohibit states from forcing hospitals to provide emergency care regardless of the type of care at issue?  Conscience protections should not give doctors or hospitals permission to let women die – yet this is exactly what Pitts and the Catholic Health Association envision in their move to blur the constitutional line separating church from state. 

But this is not the only place where the federal government is slowly but surely allowing the Catholic Bishops to decide the fate and healthcare choices of American women.  The New York Times recently reported that the Obama administration is looking into whether the Affordable Care Act “…can be used to require insurance plans to offer contraceptives and other family planning services to women free of charge” thereby providing greater access to birth control for women who cannot afford the cost. 

The Affordable care Act requires insurers to provide all preventive health services at no cost to the insured person.  Since scientific evidence clearly establishes that access to contraception and family planning services not only improves a woman’s overall health but increases her life span, contraception should be covered under this provision in the new health care law. 

But once again the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, along with other conservative organizations, is objecting to science based reasoning telling the New York Times:

Pregnancy is not a disease to be prevented, nor is fertility a pathological condition…So birth control is not preventive care, and it should not be mandated.

The Department of Health and Human Services will likely issue the preventative health care guidelines for women’s health care by August 1st.  Planned Parenthood, NARAL, the National Partnership for Women and Families, the Guttmacher Institute, and the National Women’s Law Center all support this policy along with the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the American Academy of Pediatrics and many other obstetricians, gynecologists, pediatricians, and other public health experts.

The Obama administration must defend women against these attacks by the religious right; the President needs to let American women know that he will not allow religious organizations to mandate their health care choices.  The House Republican majority and Speaker Boehner take their orders directly from the Catholic Bishops.  That message came through loud and clear when one of Speaker Boehner’s special guests at the State of the Union was Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the archbishop of Washington, D.C.

In fact, the United States National Conference of Catholic Bishops has endorsed both H.R.358 and H.R.3.  And two of the three witnesses that testified before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution for H.R.3 on February 8th included Richard M. Doerflinger, the Associate Director of the Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, and Cathy Ruse, a Senior Fellow for Legal Studies with the Family Research Council.  Beyond issuing a press release stating that “[t]he federal government should not use tax dollars to support or promote elective abortion,” at that House Subcommittee hearing Mr. Doerflinger stated:

The recent debate about forcible rape was simply an effort on the part of the sponsors to prevent the opening of a very broad loophole for federally-funded abortions for any teenager.

If the Obama administration truly intends to stand firm on the promise to restrict health care policies to science based evidence then permitting religious organization to impose moral judgments on birth control, abortion, or any reproductive rights issues will only serve to undermine that promise. 

With the ever increasing likelihood that Republicans will take control of the Senate along with the House next year, the imperative on the Obama administration becomes all the more critical in the fight for reproductive justice. 

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