February 9, 2012

Rosa L. DeLauro, a Democrat, represents Connecticut’s Third District in the U.S. House.

As both a committed Catholic and a strong advocate of women’s health, I want to applaud the recently released guidelines for preventive health coverage under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. These guidelines, which increase access to contraceptive services for women while upholding the religious liberty of churches, mosques and synagogues, strike the proper balance between respecting the religious beliefs of all Americans and protecting the health of American women and families. They will reduce health costs, end long-standing gender discrimination in prescription drug coverage and further enable women to lead healthier lives.

For the overwhelming majority of Americans, access to federally approved contraception without cost-sharing — which will go into effect in all new health insurance plans starting in August — is a common-sense reform that is long overdue. A majority of voters — and an even higher majority of Catholic female voters — support health-plan coverage of contraception with no additional cost. That is because contraception is one of the most common health-care services used by women in the United States. Ninety-eight percent of sexually active women, including Catholic women, will use it at some point in their lives.

Meanwhile, the average cost of contraception comes to $50 per month, or $600 a year, which adds up to $18,000 over the 30 years that the average woman uses contraception. That is a considerable cost, especially when you consider that women’s husbands, fathers and brothers have long enjoyed access to prescription drugs, among them Viagra, with no co-pays whatsoever. A 2010 survey by Hart Research Associates found that more than a third of female voters have struggled to afford birth control at some point and, as a result, had used birth control inconsistently.

We know that improved access to birth control is directly linked to declines in maternal and infant mortality and helps to reduce unintended pregnancies. That is why 28 states already mandate coverage of contraception and why many private employers already cover these services. These guidelines will ensure that almost all women can enjoy the same access to contraception that more than half of American women — and all members of Congress — now possess.

The administration exempts churches, synagogues, mosques and other houses of worship. The rule applies only to institutions and businesses that serve the larger community and employ people of different faiths on a non-religious basis. This preserves individual conscience protections while enabling employees of all faiths to have access to the health care they need.

With this well-crafted balance, the religious liberty of our churches and other houses of worship is respected. They are exempted from the rule, as they should be. There is no mandate that individuals use contraception or that anyone dispense contraception, and there are no changes to existing conscience protections. At the same time, the nearly 800,000 employees and dependents of employees at Catholic hospitals can still benefit from access to these services if they desire them, a good compromise that maintains access while respecting religious liberties.

And it is not just contraceptive services that are covered by this preventive health decision. Well-woman visits; DNA testing for human papillomavirus for women over 30; breastfeeding support and supplies; screening and counseling for gestational diabetes; domestic violence prevention and response; treatment of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections — these are services that, according to a report by the Commonwealth Fund, more than half of women have delayed or avoided due to cost. Beginning in August, women’s health will finally be put on an equal footing, and all of these will be provided without co-pays.

As Congress intended when we passed the Affordable Care Act in 2010, this rule will increase access to important preventive services, cut health-care costs and end long-standing gender discrimination in prescription drug coverage, while ensuring that the liberty of core religious organizations is respected. Just as important, it will reduce unintended pregnancies and alleviate suffering; it will help women stay healthy, avoid or delay disease, and lead more productive lives. It is, in sum, a profoundly moral decision, and I am proud to support it.