WASHINGTON, D.C., January 14, 2011 ( – The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has criticized the US bishops for opposing free birth control under the new health care law, saying that the Catholic leaders “cannot interfere” into the matter “by turning their religious beliefs into federal law.”

The ACLU made the remarks in a January 12 hearing before an Institute of Medicine committee, which has been charged with determining what should be covered as preventive care under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. The group called birth control coverage “good medicine” and “a critical component of basic health care for women.”

“Whether the new health guidelines should mandate contraceptive coverage is not a religious question, as the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has argued,” read the statement, which the organization posted online. “It is critical that the guidelines that the Department of Health and Human Services issues later this year recognize the importance of birth control as preventive care and put an end to politicians and faith leaders imposing their religious beliefs on women and their families.”

“Religious leaders are free to express their belief that birth control is immoral, but they cannot interfere in our personal decision making by turning their religious beliefs into federal law and taking away access to critical health care,” the statement concluded.

The US Bishops have argued that birth control is not health care at all, but a lifestyle choice, and that mandating coverage would amount to a drastic infringement of the conscience rights of employers and insurance issuers.

In November, Dierdre McQuade, Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, urged against contraception and sterilization coverage, saying that, “To prevent pregnancy is not to prevent a disease.”

“Indeed, contraception and sterilization pose their own unique and serious health risks to women and adolescents,” said McQuade. In addition, she noted that birth control, while not curing any disease itself has been linked to increased risk of stroke, heart attack and blood clots, making a coverage mandate “in contradiction with itself.”

In addition, while employers are currently free to purchase and offer health coverage that excludes contraception, “They would lose this freedom of conscience under a mandate for all plans to offer contraception and sterilization coverage,” McQuade said, making President Obama’s claim that Americans can keep their current coverage unchanged “a hollow pledge.”

The USCCB’s Office of the General Counsel, in a September letter to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), also said such a coverage requirement “would pose an unprecedented threat to rights of conscience.” 

An aggressive campaign for taxpayer coverage of contraception has also been launched by Planned Parenthood, which would directly benefit from a steady source of taxpayer funding of contraception.

In a radio appearance last October, Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards said that federal officials should consider birth control coverage a good investment because preventing children from being born would reduce the government cost burden.

“Unlike some other issues of cost, birth control is one of those issues that actually saves the government money,” Richards told DC radio host Bill Press. “So an investment in covering birth control actually in the long run is a huge cost savings because women don’t have children that they weren’t planning on having and all the sort of attendant cost for unplanned pregnancy.”

The decision on preventive care coverage is expected to be announced by HHS in August.