Birth control battle: Congress debates Obama rule requiring employers to offer free birth control prescriptions

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Capitol Hill has taken up the political battle over an administration rule that requires all employers to offer free birth control prescriptions in their workers’ medical coverage. The conflict began between the White House and U.S. Catholic Bishops, but it’s turned into a partisan fight.

The new health care law requires all employer health care plans to cover contraception and sterilization. President Barack Obama exempted religious organizations — but not the hospitals, schools and social services they operate.

Don Clemmer, spokesman for the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops, says that’s a problem. "Forcing religious organizations to do something that violates their religious beliefs," he says. "In this case, paying for products and services that they believe are immoral."

Clemmer says the issue is about more than birth control pills. "In the United States, under the First Amendment of the Constitution, can the federal government compel a religious body to do something that is against its belief? Where does that leave religion in this country?"

In a speech on the House floor, Republican Speaker John Boehner pledged that the new rule from Health and Human Services “will not stand.” He said, if the president "does not reverse the department’s attack on religious freedom then the Congress, acting on behalf of the American people and the Constitution, that we are sworn to uphold and defend, must." Speaker Boehner said the House Energy and Commerce Committee would lead efforts to find what he called an “effective and appropriate solution.”

Five Senate Democrats, including California’s Barbara Boxer, accused Boehner’s party of denying American women a health care benefit. "Women in this country are tired of being treated like a political football by Republicans in Congress, who have tried continually and are continuing to try to take away their benefits, to take away their rights."

House Democrats also denounced GOP calls to reverse the rule. Congresswoman Lois Capps of Santa Barbara, a registered nurse, said California and 27 other states already require contraception coverage in medical insurance plans. "And the new federal standard is based on the one that has worked in my home state of California for years with no harmful detriment to employment of anyone."

But a spokesman says L.A.'s Roman Catholic Archdiocese is self-insured and has been for more than a quarter century. That means it’s exempt from the state requirement to pay for contraceptives.

Senator Boxer insists that it’s possible to make the new requirement work for Catholic organizations.

"Many hospitals do this their own way," Boxer said. "One way is they will contract with an outside entity to provide the particular benefit. So there’s many, many ways."

This is an election year, though, and compromise and calm discussion are in short supply. Now the focus is on the White House and the Department of Health and Human Services to craft a plan that lawmakers won’t debate from now until November.

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