Boehner Ups the Threat Against Contraception Coverage

This morning, House Speaker John Boehner vowed in a House floor speech to overturn the provision in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) that would require faith-affiliated hospitals and universities to include birth-control coverage in their employee health benefits. The provision, Boehner argued, “constitutes an unambiguous attack on religious freedom in our country.”

In response, U.S. Reps. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), Jan Schakowsky (D-IL), Lois Capps (D-CA) and Gwen Moore (D-WI), spoke out on behalf of the 99 percent–that is, the 99 percent of American women who have used birth control–arguing that the provision is a respectful balance between religious interests and individual conscience and freedom.

At the request of Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius, the Institute of Medicine (an independent, nonprofit research organization) recommended in October 2011 that birth control and a number of other women’s health services be included in the essential health benefits package. The Administration decided to accept these recommendations and require employers to offer birth control coverage with no co-pay, in what Rep. DeLauro called a “commonsense reform long overdue.”

As it stands, the PPACA still includes a religious exemption, allowing houses of worship to refuse to offer contraception coverage in their employee health plans. But the National Conference of Catholic Bishops has been pressuring the Obama Administration for some time to broaden the religious exemption for contraceptive coverage to include Catholic or other religiously-affiliated schools, hospitals, universities and charities.

Speaker Boehner failed to mention that 28 states already require birth control coverage in employee health plans. Eight of those states don’t offer any religious exemption. Rep. Schakowsky argued that the religious exemption for houses of worship in the PPACA was a respectful compromise, and that many Catholic hospitals and universities already provide birth control coverage to their employees as a standard of care.

Surveys show that 99 percent of all women–and 98 percent of Catholic women–have used birth control at some point in their lives. “It’s not as controversial as they want you to believe,” Rep. Capps said. “The majority of women support this.”

Even with health insurance, contraception costs American women between $600 and $1,200 every year. While many women struggle to afford this basic health care, their husbands, fathers and brothers often have access to drugs like Viagra with no co-pay whatsoever. Full coverage for birth control and other women’s health services in the PPACA will finally bring an end to the “longstanding gender discrimination in prescription drug coverage,” said Rep. DeLauro. “Women’s health will finally be put on equal footing.”

The recent Susan G. Komen foundation fiasco showed the nation that women don’t want politics getting in the way of health care. Ultimately, the convictions of some religious leaders should not be allowed to trump the rights of millions of women employees to have access to birth control. Or, as Rep. Schakowsky put it, “Your health care benefits shouldn’t depend on who your boss is.”

Rep. Moore called the Boehner move a distortion of the separation of church and state. “It shouldn’t be the ability of the church to get on a bully pulpit and separate millions of women from critical health services,” she said. “Women want to exercise their religious freedom, and freedom period.”

Women’s rights groups have rallied to support the administration’s decision. Today, in response to Boehner’s remarks, NARAL Pro-Choice America launched the Win for Women: Defend Birth Control for the 99 Percent campaign. “We want to make sure women of all religious backgrounds are able to make the health-care decisions that are best for them and their families,” NARAL president Nancy Keenan said:

No one is being asked to prescribe or take birth control. Some politicians and their allies are using the debate around religious liberty to distract from their real goal: opposition to birth control, one of the many fronts in their ongoing War on Women’s Health. We will fight to make sure that women can get birth-control coverage without asking their bosses for permission.

Part of the #HERvotes blog carnival.

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Leah Berkenwald is the online communications and social media specialist at the Jewish Women's Archive and editor of the Jewesses with Attitude blog. With a background in American Studies and Journalism, Leah is currently studying Health Communication at Emerson College in Boston, MA. She is particularly passionate about sexual health issues, despite her father’s plea that she do something less controversial like "save the whales."