Opinion

GUEST OP: Keep religion out of health care reform

Elected officials' religious views should be their own private affair, neither imposed by them upon the nation, nor imposed by the nation as condition to holding public office. This means their private religious views should not be imposed via the current debate over health care reform.

Important life decisions are responsibilities of individuals and families, not of government or religious groups. On that, most of us can agree. There is also a strong history of separation of church and state in America, and one of our founding principles is of freedom from religious intolerance. That's why I was deeply offended when Roman Catholic Church bishops lobbied Congress on health care reform in order to deny millions of women access to abortion.

As an American I am proud of our constitutionally guaranteed right to worship or not as one sees fit, and of our prohibition of government-imposed state religion. But what started out to be about health care for all has morphed into a referendum and debate on abortion unduly influenced by the church. Health care legislation passed by the House of Representatives compromises our personal choices and subverts the principle of abortion neutrality.

The Stupak-Pitts amendment potentially goes farther than any other federal law to restrict a woman's access to abortion. By prohibiting women who receive partial federal subsidies from buying insurance plans that cover abortion, the Stupak amendment bans abortion coverage by any insurer participating in the health exchange. The amendment favors one religious view of abortion and enlists the federal government as enforcer. As such, it is an egregious assault on the rights of women and an enormous step backward for those who believe in separation of church and state.

President Obama has said, "If you're happy and satisfied with the insurance that you have, it's not going to change." But this House proposal potentially reduces health care coverage for the more than 80 percent of typical employer-based insurance plans that now cover abortion.

Women supposedly will be able to obtain abortion coverage by purchasing a separate, single-service "rider." However, according to the National Women's Law Center, in the five states that currently require a separate rider for abortion coverage, there is no evidence that plans offer such riders. Furthermore, women are unlikely to buy a rider to cover abortion, because they do not plan for unplanned pregnancy or one that is needed for medical or health reasons.

A number of national polls have shown that Americans strongly believe health insurance should include complete women's reproductive health services and that women have a full range of choices offered. A recent poll commissioned by Moving Forward, a values-based research initiative developed by the Women Donors Network and the Communications Consortium, found that a majority, 56 percent, believe those receiving subsidies should be able to purchase a health insurance plan that covers abortion. The House proposal does not reflect that view.

Meaningful reform has the potential to bring health care to more American women and their families than ever before. But Congress should not be in the business of restricting choices for women, particularly for religious reasons. As presidential candidate, John F. Kennedy said, "I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute ... where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source – where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials ..."

Instead of kowtowing to Catholic bishops, Congress should stand up for what the majority of Americans want in health care reform – and they want choices, not limitations.

M. Patricia West is a public health consultant who lives in Philadelphia. She is a member of the Women Donors Network and involved with their Moving Forward initiative.

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