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Cardinal Dolan Calls Proposed Change to Contraceptive Mandate ‘Disheartening’

Xavier Becerra is seen on Capitol Hill in Washington Feb. 24, 2021. The Senate confirmed him as U.S. secretary of Health and Human Services March 18 in a 50-49 vote. (CNS photo/Greg Nash, Pool via Reuters)

WASHINGTON — Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York has criticized a proposal by the Biden administration saying employers would no longer be able to refuse contraceptive coverage in their health plans based on moral grounds.

The proposed rule — issued Jan. 30 by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Treasury and Labor departments — would keep in place the religious exemption to the contraceptive mandate of the 2010 Affordable Care Act while doing away with employers’ exemptions to providing this coverage on moral grounds, an extension added in 2018 by the Trump administration. 

The rule would also create an “independent pathway” for those with health insurance with a provider with a religious exemption to access free contraception coverage through another provider. 

“While we are pleased that the proposed regulations appear, at this early stage of review, to retain the bulk of the existing religious exemption, their elimination of protections for moral convictions is disheartening,” said Cardinal Dolan, also the chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee (USCCB) for Religious Liberty.

Cardinal Dolan noted in a Feb. 1 statement issued by the USCCB that the exemptions to contraceptive coverage in employer health care plans “provided appropriately clear and robust protections for the exercise of religious beliefs and moral convictions, free from government punishment.”

Cardinal Dolan also pointed out that exemptions to the mandate were upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2020.

“It is past time for HHS to leave well enough alone in this regard,” he said, adding: “We regret that it is necessary to revisit this matter and will file more thorough comments with HHS at the appropriate time.”

There is a 60-day window for the public to comment on the proposed rule. Officials expect many people will comment on it and that it could take several months before the rule will be finalized.

If it is finalized, it is also likely to bring on potential lawsuits from religious-affiliated employers who previously disputed the contraceptive mandate. The mandate has been controversial since it was first announced over a decade ago and has been opposed by the U.S. Catholic bishops from the start. 

The mandate has prompted lawsuits from religious employers and companies that said the policy violated their beliefs. Exemptions and accommodations for these employers have been carved out of the health care act.

Administration leaders have voiced their support for the proposal to remove one of these exemptions. 

HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra said in a statement that the “proposed rule works to ensure that the tens of millions of women across the country who have and will benefit from the ACA will be protected. It says to women across the country, ‘we have your back.’ ”

And Chiquita Brooks-LaSure, administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, said the proposal aims to “protect and promote” access to contraception and reproductive health care services. 

The effort has been described as another attempt by the Biden administration to ensure that women have access to reproductive services in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. 

Cardinal Dolan said the “proper reaction to the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs is not, as the proposed regulations claim, to make it free for women to sterilize themselves, but rather to relieve the burdens that our laws and culture place both on mothers and those who may become mothers.”