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Story of the week: The contraception controversy continues

It’s been over a month since the Obama administration issued regulations saying that insurance companies must now cover birth control as part of women’s preventive health care. And it’s been nearly that long since they revised the conscience clause— allowing not just churches, but affiliated religious institutions like schools and hospitals to opt out of paying for contraceptives. Instead insurance companies would provide the coverage to women directly and for free (since it saves insurers money in the long run).

Women get access to necessary health care, and religious employers don’t have to pay for something they find objectionable. Sounds like everybody wins, right?

Yet Congress is still arguing about birth control. Here’s our coverage of what you may have missed over the past month (with some help from The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart).  

The Hearings

House Republicans scheduled hearings on the birth control issue, where a number of clergymen testified that even after the compromise, they still viewed the rules as an attack on their religious freedom. Rabbi Meir Soloveichik of Yeshiva University summed up their position:

“The putative accommodation is no accommodation at all. Religious organizations would still be obligated to provide employees with an insurance policy that facilitates acts violating the organization’s religious tenets.”

The argument doesn’t make a ton of sense. Because of the “accommodation” no one is asking religious employers to pay for birth control– just to provide insurance that allows employees to obtain birth control if they choose.  In the same way, religious institutions also pay their employees money, which allows employees to obtain any number of services violating the organization’s religious tenets, as Jon Stewart points out:

Also, that word clergyMEN is important. The first five-member panel called by House Republicans to discuss whether birth control should be covered as part of women’s comprehensive health care did not include a single woman (although a less publicized panel later in the day did include two women).

Sandra Fluke’s testimony

Democrats asked that the House panel include Sandra Fluke, a Georgetown University law student, who planned to talk about how the university’s lack of birth control coverage affected students there.  Fluke was rejected by the panel’s chairman Darrell Issa (R-Ca.), whose staff sent out a statement saying:

“As the hearing is not about reproductive rights but instead about the administration’s actions as they relate to freedom of religion and conscience, he believes that Ms. Fluke is not an appropriate witness.”

Democrats instead held their own unofficial hearing, with Fluke as the only witness. Fluke testified about the “financial, emotional, and medical burdens” faced by women, because of Georgetown’s contraceptive policy. She spoke of one friend, who took birth control medication to combat polycystic ovarian syndrome, and couldn’t get the insurer to cover her prescription, despite verification of the illness from her doctor:

“She’s gay, so clearly polycystic ovarian syndrome was a much more urgent concern than accidental pregnancy. After months of paying over $100 out of pocket, she just couldn’t afford her medication anymore and had to stop taking it. I learned about all of this when I walked out of a test and got a message from her that in the middle of her final exam period she’d been in the emergency room all night in excruciating pain. She wrote, “It was so painful, I woke up thinking I’d been shot.” Without her taking the birth control, a massive cyst the size of a tennis ball had grown on her ovary. She had to have surgery to remove her entire ovary. On the morning I was originally scheduled to give this testimony, she sat in a doctor’s office.”

Radio host Rush Limbaugh weighed in, calling Fluke a “slut” and a “prostitute” (his reasoning, if you could call it that, was that by asking that her birth control prescription be covered by her insurance, Fluke wanted to be paid for having sex). He added that in exchange for birth control coverage, Fluke and other women who support the policy should videotape themselves having sex and post it online.

The one silver lining from Limbaugh’s repulsive comments is that the ensuing controversy could be the end of his radio career– so far 39 companies have pulled their ads from his show.

The Blunt Amendment

In the midst of all this, the Senate held a vote on the birth control issue, in the form of an amendment to an unrelated transportation bill. The amendment, proposed by Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), would have allowed any employer or insurer to deny coverage for any medical item or service based on religious or moral objections.

Senate Republicans tried to argue that the bill was not about birth control, but rather religious freedom. This argument would make a little more sense if

  1. Obama hadn’t already offered a compromise to religious-affiliated employers; and
  2. They could point to one medical service besides birth control to which this “religious freedom” amendment would apply. (Abortion is the only service we could think of, and there is no mandate for plans to cover that.)

The amendment was voted down, 52-49. One Republican Senator who voted for it, Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who has a reputation for being somewhat moderate, says she already regrets the decision:

“I have never had a vote I’ve taken where I have felt that I let down more people that believed in me,” she said in a Sunday interview with the newspaper. Asked if she would vote for the amendment again if she could do it over, Murkowski said, “No.”

Hopefully this will finally be the end of Congress discussing whether or not birth control should be covered by insurance plans. The nonpartisan Institute of Medicine determined that it was important enough for women’s health to be covered without cost sharing, it boosts women’s salaries, and it saves taxpayers money. Women and their doctors should have the last word on this, not all male panels testifying before Congress.

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