When Religion and Health Collide: Birth Control and the Affordable Care Act

In August of 2011 Health and Human Services Secretary, Kathleen Sebelius, announced that as a part of the Affordable Care Act, starting in January of 2013, new health plans will be required to offer all FDA approved forms of birth control without a co-pay. The FDA includes the morning-after pill (also known as Plan B) as birth control. 
 
This new requirement was put into place based on a recommendation by the Institute of Medicine which found that prevention of unintended pregnancies is essential for the psychological, emotional and physical health of women.
 
While the new regulation does include a provision for religious institutions to opt out of offering birth control coverage, some are arguing that the exemption is too narrow.   Currently the provision only covers organizations that primarily exist to promote religious teaching, and mainly employ and serve people with the same religious beliefs. 
 
Two colleges, Belmont Abbey College in North Carolina and Colorado Christian University, have already filed lawsuits stating that this new mandate violates their religious beliefs. Belmont Abbey College’s objections are broadly against being “forced to pay for contraception, sterilization, abortion, and related education and counseling,” while Colorado Christian University’s objections are specific to paying for “abortifacient drugs and related education and counseling.” This references the drug commonly known as “Plan B.”
 
While supporters of the new birth-control mandate see a broadening of the religious exemption as threatening access to preventive health services to millions of women, the Catholic Church, in a letter to the administration, characterized the mandate, as it stands now, as“an unprecedented attack on religious liberty.”  
 
How do we balance the religious beliefs of an institution with concerns for public health and the rights of the individual to access care?  How do we respond when sincerely held beliefs clash with health care policy?  These are some of the same conflicts that health care professionals face when their ethical, legal, and moral obligations conflict with those of their patient. With these polarizing issues there are no easy answers, but our mission at Tanenbaum is to promote an environment of respect and understanding to continue the conversation.