Standing Together for Conscience Rights

By Deirdre A. McQuade

October 17, 2011

Last week a remarkable thing happened. Twenty leaders of national Catholic organizations signed a joint statement to protest the mandate for contraception and sterilization coverage issued this summer by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), and to call for legislative reform to protect conscience rights. It was an unprecedented sign of unity and solidarity among these Catholic organizations, many of which will have their conscience rights and religious liberty violated if the mandate is not reformed soon. The leaders who signed this public appeal to Congress and the Administration represent millions of Catholics. Additional leaders are now asking to sign on to the next such statement.

The joint statement appeared as a full-page color ad in two Capitol Hill newspapers, Politico and The Hill, on October 11 with the headline: “Support access to health care? Protect conscience rights.” It’s posted along with the bishops’ current action alert and other conscience protection resources at

The statement explains that the new HHS rule “will force Catholic organizations that play a vital role in providing health care and other needed services either to violate their conscience or severely curtail those services. This would harm both religious freedom and access to health care.” It would force employers to pay for sterilization and contraceptives, including drugs which can induce abortion like Ella, marketed as an “emergency contraceptive.” These drugs as well as surgical sterilizations will be subsidized by all participants in private health plans – with no co-pay from the patient.

A narrowly-written religious exemption applies only to church institutions that hire and serve mostly Catholics and meet other strict criteria, thus excluding most Catholic schools, hospitals, and social service agencies. Not even Jesus would qualify for that exemption, since he healed the blind, sick, and lame regardless of their religious affiliation!

            The ad’s signatories include Archbishop Timothy Dolan, president of the bishops’ conference, and heads of Catholic universities, health care associations, domestic and international agencies that serve refugees and the poor, a disability rights advocacy group, and lay associations of men and women. Many signers are Catholic employers and service organizations who will be affected if the law is not reformed. Others represent lay Catholics who will face coercion under the same HHS rule because they participate in private health insurance plans.

            In addition to the USCCB, the organizations standing together for conscience rights are: Alliance of Catholic Health Care, Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, Catholic Association of Latino Leaders, Catholic Charities USA, Catholic Daughters of the Americas, Catholic Medical Association, Catholic Relief Services, The Catholic University of America, Catholic Volunteer Network, the Knights of Columbus, the Knights of Peter Claver & their Ladies Auxiliary, Migration and Refugee Services, National Catholic Bioethics Center, National Catholic Educational Association, National Catholic Partnership on Disability, National Council of Catholic Women, National Council of the U.S. Society of St. Vincent de Paul, and the University of Notre Dame.

            You may already have expressed your opposition to HHS’s coercive rule. Before the September 30th deadline for public comments, the USCCB’s write-in campaign alone generated over 57,000 messages to HHS. Want another way to show that you stand with the bishops on religious freedom? Post the ad’s link on your Facebook page or send it to your family by e-mail. Belong to one of the associations that signed on? Ask local leadership to display it prominently on your website or print it in your next newsletter. Are you an alum of “Catholic U” or Notre Dame (like me), or of a college represented by the ACCU? Tell your alumni association about it so others in your international networks can know, too. Then let us know about the creative ways you helped spread the good word by dropping a line to @email. Thank you!

Deirdre A. McQuade is Assistant Director for Policy & Communications at the Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. For more information on the bishops’ work protecting conscience rights, go to