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Some people were surprised at the current administration's unwillingness to grant Catholic institutions a waiver from the mandate to provide contraception, sterilization, and abortifacient drugs without co-pay through the now mandatory health insurance plans. They shouldn't have been. Almost from their first days in power, the present administration had signaled its unwillingness to protect rights of conscience of health care providers and institutions.
In August of 2008 the Bush administration's department of Health and Human Services (HHS) issued regulations designed to protect health care providers from discrimination. The goal was to formalize the protections passed by Congress. The protections were broadly written and included any procedures or actions that the provider felt violated their conscience or religious beliefs. According to then HHS Secretary Mike Leavitt, "Doctors and other health care providers should not be forced to choose between good professional standing and violating their conscience."
One of the first actions of the current administration was to withdraw these 2008 regulations. That should have been a signal that the rights of conscience were under attack. In 2011 new regulations were issued which essentially gutted the Leavitt rules. These were narrowly drawn to cover only abortion and sterilization. Concern was expressed that the 2008 rule unacceptably impacted patient rights and restricted access to health care and informed consent, as though, if everyone was not forced to counsel for abortion, contraception and sterilization, clients would not be able to find these services. The fact is that it is the faithful Catholic who finds it difficult to find a doctor who does not push contraception as opposed to highly effective natural family planning techniques, a doctor who will not push pre-natal testing whose only goal is to target the less than perfect unborn child for termination, or who will not suggest abortion the moment any problem in the pregnancy arises.
There is no question that those who support abortion rights and the sexual revolution want to either force Catholics and others who support the right to life to violate their consciences or force them out of health care all together, and they will use their political clout to achieve this end. The threat to every faithful Catholic health care provider and institution is very real and far broader than just the insurance mandate. And the threat does not end with health care. We are witnessing a concerted campaign to drive religion from the public square. If the total secularization of culture succeeds, people of faith would probably still be allowed to worship inside their churches, but banned from participating as equals in the provision of social services or political activity.
In September, I had the privilege of attending the Catholic Medical Association's national convention in St. Paul, Minn. There were well over 600 physicians, other health care professionals, and medical students in attendance. The theme was 'Witness to Hope: Medicine and the New Evangelization," but many of the speakers discussed the assault on rights of Catholic physicians and institutions. Among them was George Weigel, author of the comprehensive biography of John Paul II "Witness to Hope," and Carl Anderson, Supreme Knight of the Knights of Columbus.
As I talked to the individual physicians, many spoke of how they often felt alone and isolated as they were forced to deal with institutions hostile to Catholic teaching and how beneficial it was for them to get together with a large group of peers who shared their conviction that Catholic ethical norms were not only binding on their consciences, they were also the best practices for their patients. Many shared how they had been discriminated against for their refusal to compromise and for their determination not to violate their religious convictions. One of the greatest frustrations expressed by the participants was the media's unwillingness to cover the well documented problems associated with abortion and contraception.
Given the nature of the threat to freedom of religion, not just for health care professionals or for Catholic schools and hospitals, but for every person of faith, now as never before we must pray and make our voices heard.
Dale O'Leary is an internationally recognized lecturer and author of "The Gender Agenda: Redefining Equality."