In spite of President Barack Obama’s amended mandate for contraceptive coverage as a preventive service for women in early February 2012, opponents remained committed to fighting for a complete exemption on the basis of moral or religious objections. Fueled by strong opposition to contraceptive coverage from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, conservative lawmakers pushed two separate measures to amend the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (P.L. 111-148) and expand religious exemptions for contraceptive coverage as well as other health care services.
A bill (S. 2092) sponsored by Senators Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Joe Manchin (D-WV) would allow any employer to refuse to cover contraception for religious or moral reasons and is pending in the Senate. A second bill (S. 1467), sponsored by Senator Roy Blunt (R-MO), went even further by attempting to expand religious exemptions to any health insurers or employers who wish to deny coverage of any service for moral or religious reasons. The Blunt amendment only highlightsthe preventive services recommended for women and seeks religious exemption for any employer or health insurer who wishes to deny any health care service it deems “contrary to the religious beliefs or moral convictions.” Under the language of the Blunt amendment this exemption would include all of the recommended preventive service such as HIV or sexually transmitted disease (STD) tests, contraceptive care, DNA testing for human papilloma virus (HPV) in women over age 30; counseling for STDs; and domestic violence screening and counseling, as well as other services found to be in conflict with a providers’ morals, such as vaccinations.
Strong opposition from women’s groups, health care professionals, and lawmakers was immediate and highly critical of religious freedom or religious conscious claims that ultimately serve to restrict women’s access to preventive care such as contraception. As Daniel Mach, director of the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief, states, “This is a distorted view of religious liberty. It’s one that would grant virtually boundless rights to use religion to discriminate or ignore important health and safety protections, and importantly, one that has no basis in law or the Constitution.”
Originally, the Obama administration exempted religious employers from covering contraception but did not exempt religiously affiliated organizations with a broader mission, such as hospitals and universities, who also employ non-Catholics or non-religious employees. In response to the concerns of religious organizations, the administration announced on February 10 that religiously affiliated employers will not have to offer contraceptive coverage for their employees; rather, their health insurance companies will be required to provide the coverage directly. Contraceptive care will be “part of the bundle of services that all insurance companies are required to offer,” said a White House official. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishopsimmediately announced their rejection of the changes: “We will . . . continue—with no less vigor, no less sense of urgency—our efforts to correct this problem.”
The continued effort by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to expand religious exemptions increasingly appears to be out of touch with the views of the general public and even Catholics. Despite the stance of Catholic bishops and other religious organizations, there is strong support for federally mandated contraceptive coverage, even before the most recent change by the Obama administration. A survey conducted February 8–13 by CBS News found that 61 percent of Americans support federally mandated contraception coverage for religiously affiliated employers, while 31 percent oppose such coverage. Similarly, among self-identified Catholics surveyed, 61 percent said they support the requirement, while 32 percent oppose it. The majority of both men and women support the mandate to provide free access to contraceptive health; however, support is stronger among women, with 66 percent supporting and 26 percent opposing it. Among men, 55 percent are in favor and 38 percent object.
Various Catholic organizations, including the Catholic Health Association, Catholic Charities, the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities, and the Sisters of Mercy in the Americas express support for the new version of the contraception mandate. Catholics for Choice president Jon O’Brien voiced criticism of Obama’s accommodation as being too accommodating of the bishops, stating, “One wonders what has been gained by this ‘accommodation.’ . . . The majority of Catholics are in favor of contraceptive access for women, regardless of where they work. And despite hopes and promises, the bishops won’t be throwing their support behind this administration, or women’s health, or true religious liberty anytime soon.”
The proposed legislative efforts by Senators Rubio and Blunt to exempt employers from covering birth control on the basis of religious or moral objections proved to be especially contentious among lawmakers. Attempts to attach the Blunt amendment to a bipartisan transportation bill were initially unsuccessful. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid eventually announced that a formal vote on the amendment addressing contraception would be allowed.
Meanwhile, in the House, a hearing led by Darrell Issa (R-CA), took place on Thursday, February 16, 2012. The majority had nine witnesses and did not allow a single witness called by the minority to testify. The first panel of five witnesses was an all-male panel of professors and religious leaders, including a Catholic bishop. Two female Democrat representatives walked out of the committee meeting after their request to include the testimony of a female Georgetown University law student, Sandra Fluke, was denied. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) asked, “What I want to know is, where are the women? I look at this panel, and I don’t see one single individual representing the tens of millions of women across the country who want and need insurance coverage for basic preventive health care services, including family planning.” Two women were included on the second panel and echoed their conservative colleagues’ testimony.
Resistance to the Blunt amendment quickly mounted. Following Obama’s announcement of changes to the mandate, a letter signed by 87 lawmakers was sent to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius stating their support. A campaign led by Advocates for Youth (#BC4US), in which SIECUS participated, received over a thousand submissions from youth activists and college students across the country lobbying their representatives to protect their access to contraception as a crucial component of preventive care. These submissions were then presented to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), Representative Carolyn Maloney, and Representative Elijah Cummings (D-MD). The American Association of University Women sponsored their own panel, “Action: Birth Control in 2012,” and Pelosi called a hearing to allow student and activist Sandra Fluke the opportunity to testify.
Ultimately, the Blunt Amendment was killed with a 51–48 vote. The vote was largely along party lines with three Democrats—Senators Robert Casey Jr. (PA), Joe Manchin (WV), and Ben Nelson (NE)—voting in favor of the amendment and one Republican senator, Olympia Snowe (ME), opposing it.
For more information or to take action, please visit the Coalition to Protect Women’s Health at www.coalitiontoprotectwomenshealth.org.