Presidential debates are supposed to clarify issues, but sometimes have the opposite effect. Misinformation on policy can obscure what’s happening in real life, and a case in point is Obamacare’s mandate for preventive health services.
Here’s the background: The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) handed down the mandate as part of the Affordable Care Act. Among other things, it requires nearly all employee insurance plans to cover abortion drugs and contraception at no cost to the insured. This dictate extends to religious employers, regardless of moral objection, exempting only formal houses of worship.
Twice the debates not only have obscured these basic facts, but spread misinformation about the anti-conscience mandate from HHS arising from Obamacare (even the president calls it that).
Take 1: In the vice presidential debate, when Rep. Paul Ryan charged the Obama administration with trampling on religious liberty with its HHS mandate, Vice President Joe Biden flatly denied the plain facts of the matter.
“[L]et me make it absolutely clear,” Biden said. “No religious institution, Catholic or otherwise, including Catholic Social Services, Georgetown Hospital, Mercy Hospital, any hospital, none has to either refer contraception, none has to pay for contraception, none has to be a vehicle to get contraception in any insurance policy they provide. That is a fact.”
Actually, that is false. More than 100 plaintiffs in court objecting to the HHS mandate provide a powerful piece of evidence against the vice president’s account.
Biden claimed that religious social services would not be forced to violate their faith under the mandate. In fact, nearly a dozen local Catholic Charities in dioceses across the country have been forced to sue the administration for relief. In fact, the national Catholic Charities USA urged HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to broaden religious liberty protection to include the organization, which serves more than 10 million Americans a year.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops took issue with Biden’s misinformation, issuing a statement after the debate to set the record straight.
Take 2: During the second presidential debate, President Obama asserted: “Governor Romney feels comfortable having politicians in Washington decide the health care choices that women are making. I think that’s a mistake.”
That’s quite a charge coming from the instigator of Obamacare, the massive health care law overhauling a sixth of our economy and dictating what insurers must offer, what employers must cover and what individuals must buy. Talk about deciding health care choices.
Obama admitted in the debate that he was dictating health insurance choices: “In my health care bill, I said insurance companies need to provide contraceptive coverage to everybody who is insured.”
He criticized Romney for opposing the HHS mandate and standing up for the freedom of religious employers to continue providing coverage consistent with their convictions. His implication was that to oppose the mandate is to limit women’s access to contraception.
What a far cry from reality. This isn’t about denying anyone access to contraception. It’s not about Americans losing prior health coverage.
It’s about government denying religious liberty. It’s about Americans losing the freedom to establish or choose health insurance plans without government coercion.
The mandate defended by the president and vice president forces religious employers into an impossible choice: violate their convictions or pay a fine for non-compliance—$100 per day per employee. The crippling fees would close down most organizations.
That’s why more than 100 plaintiffs have joined more than 30 lawsuits against the mandate. These include Catholic schools serving inner-city children, ministries helping the developmentally disabled and terminally ill, evangelical colleges, even a Bible publisher.
Such employers are vital to American civil society, often helping individuals and communities overcome significant needs. That mission to serve owes to their distinctive identity, animated by faith that instills a profound sense of human dignity.
If the consistent application of these life-affirming beliefs commits such groups to oppose supplying “free” abortion drugs or contraception, there certainly ought to be room for tolerance toward such views in American society. As Ryan reminded Biden, a fellow Catholic: “Our church should not have to sue our federal government to maintain their religious liberties.”
Sadly, Obamacare has forced religious liberty into court, and this episode is unlikely to be the last. The HHS mandate is just the beginning of the clashes with conscience that we can expect under health care increasingly centralized in Washington.
Jennifer A. Marshall is director of the DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society at The Heritage Foundation and author of the book “Now and Not Yet: Making Sense of Single Life in the Twenty-First Century.”