Vatican: Catholic Church 'committed' to universal healthcare

The Vatican said the Catholic Church is "committed to universal healthcare coverage" in a release Thursday that described a speech by one of its leaders before the World Health Assembly. 

Archbishop Zygmunt Zimoski told the meeting in Geneva on Wednesday that the Vatican supports Resolution WHA64.9, a measure that would urge countries to "plan the transition of their health systems to universal coverage."  

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"My delegation strongly believes that … fundamental values such as equity, human rights and social justice need to become explicit policy objectives," Zimoski said. 

The statement comes as the U.S. Catholic Church is embroiled in a fight with the Obama administration over the contraception mandate included in the healthcare law, which represented a major step toward universal coverage. 

American Catholics are divided over how to achieve universal coverage in the United States. Debate over the Affordable Care Act in 2010 split the church's hierarchy, which opposed the bill, from several Catholic health organizations and a coalition of nuns from leading orders, which stood behind it. 

Now the Obama administration is facing a backlash from Catholic bishops and institutions over the birth control mandate. Groups including the University of Notre Dame filed a wave of new suits on Monday, bringing the total number of cases now pending over the mandate to more than 30, and criticism of the administration by Catholic leaders has been sharp.

On Wednesday, Zimoski highlighted the role of Catholic institutions in providing healthcare to the underprivileged worldwide and working "toward universal access." He added that governments should support the groups' efforts without "obliging them to participate in activities they find morally abhorrent."

This is the part of the argument made by Catholic and other religious complainants against the mandate, which they say violates the religious freedom of people who object to contraception or consider some forms of it equal to abortion. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops — the church's U.S. hierarchy — has led calls for the policy's repeal, alongside many Republicans.

Under the White House’s proposal, most employers must cover contraception in their employees’ healthcare plans without charging a co-pay. Churches and houses of worship are exempt altogether, while religiously affiliated institutions, such as Catholic hospitals and schools, don’t have to pay for the coverage through their own plans — their employees will get contraception directly from the insurer instead, and still without a co-pay.

Twenty-eight states already have similar laws on the books, according to reports, and eight of them do not include the federal rule's religious exemption.

The mandate has received broad support from physicians and women's health advocates who argue that birth control should be treated like any other preventive healthcare service.

Some also point out that a vast majority of Catholic women use and support birth control. In the latest national survey on the question, 82 percent of Catholic adults called birth control "morally acceptable" compared with 89 percent of U.S. adults generally.

White House spokesman Jay Carney said in February that President Obama nevertheless takes objectors' concerns "very seriously" and is "very aware of and engaged in this issue."

"We are very sensitive and understand some of the concerns that have been expressed," Carney told reporters.

"We're not trying to win an argument here," he said. "We're trying to implement a policy that will affect millions of women."