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Catholic Church Files Civil Rights Complaint Against State Over Abortion Mandate

California's Catholic leaders have filed a civil rights complaint with the Department of Health and Human Services over a recent decision by the state to mandate that religiously affiliated universities there offer full abortion coverage in their employees' health care plans.

Earlier this year, the California Lawyer learned that despite the state's commitment to fully protect comprehensive reproductive rights, two Catholic universities - Loyola Marymount and Santa Clara - had discontinued coverage for "not medically necessary" abortion services for their employees. In August, the California Department of Managed Health Care (DMHC) Director Michelle Rouillard called those decisions discriminatory in a letter to their insurance providers and mandated that they cover the procedure in all instances.

The Catholic church claims the state's mandate was a violation of the Weldon Amendment, which allows the government to withhold federal money from agencies that discriminate against doctors, hospitals, or insurers that don't offer abortion coverage. But local reproductive rights advocates say any effort to deny coverage would adversely impact the many for the sake of the few.

"California is better than that," the Legislative Women's Caucus wrote this summer in a letter to California Governer Jerry Brown. "We respect women's autonomy and proudly separate ourselves from the anti-choice states whose policies diminish women's rights." Attention to California law on mandatory abortion insurance access led to the late-August guidance issued by the DMHC, which called language about "medically-necessary" or "therapeutic" abortions discriminatory against women.

Sierra Harris, the Assistant Director of the Access Women's Health Justice, told the Feminist Newswire that their group consistently works with Californians who aren't covered under any form of health insurance and noted that there is a grave need for expanded reproductive health access through the state's health exchange. "We support all insurance coverage in California that covers abortion services," Harris said. "We really hope California remains a leader in reproductive health services."

Although a spokesperson for the Department of Health and Human Services' Office for Civil Rights says the new complaint from the Catholic conference is under review, Rouillard has reiterated that the agency considers abortion a basic health care service.

Many religious colleges have tried to cut abortion and contraceptive coverage by challenging the birth control benefit of the Affordable Care Act, which requires health insurance providers to cover preventive health services - including all FDA-approved contraceptives, such as the pill, emergency contraceptives, and IUDs - without charging co-pays, deductibles, or co-insurance. In July, a majority of the US Supreme Court ruled that Wheaton College does not have to comply with the ACA contraceptive coverage benefit; the University of Notre Dame also recently asked the Court to intervene in its own case against the Obama administration objecting to the mandate's accommodation for religiously affiliated non-profits that allows their insurers to cover contraception directly.

Media Resources: California Catholic Conference 10/1/14; CBS Sacramento 10/1/14; Associated Press 10/1/14; California Lawyer 6/2014; California Legislative Women's Caucus 8/12/14; Los Angeles Times 8/25/14; California Department of Managed Health Care 8/22/14; MSNBC 10/6/14; Feminist Newswire 7/7/14, 8/25/14

Media Resources:

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