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Women speak out against HHS mandate

WASHINGTON (BP) — The battle over the Obama administration’s contraceptive/abortion mandate is about religious freedom, not the availability of birth control, women leaders inside and outside Congress say.

Speaking at a Capitol Hill news conference Thursday (March 1), two House of Representatives members and spokeswomen for 10 organizations explained their opposition — and that of millions of other women — to the controversial requirement.

“The other side is trying to make this appear to be about access,” Jeanne Monahan of the Family Research Council told reporters.

“Let’s be clear,” she said. “This is not about access. This is about religious liberty.”

The women expressed their opposition to the mandate less than two hours after the U.S. Senate turned down an attempt to protect religious freedom and conscience rights under the controversial rule. Senators voted 51-48 to table — and essentially kill — an amendment designed to guard the “religious beliefs or moral convictions” of those offering and purchasing insurance under the health care law enacted in 2010.

The rule, finalized in January, requires health insurance plans to cover without cost to employees sterilizations and contraceptives, including those that can cause abortions, as part of preventive services. The contraceptives, as designated by the federal government, include drugs — such as “ella” and the “morning-after” pill Plan B — that act after fertilization and destroy a human embryo.

Religious liberty advocates have criticized what they have described as an inadequate religious exemption in the mandate and said an accommodation announced Feb. 10 by President Obama would still require religious organizations to be complicit in paying for employees’ abortion-causing contraceptives through their insurance companies. They also have pointed out the president’s compromise would not protect faith-based insurance plans or individuals who object to paying for such products.

“Clearly, the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment is intended to protect people from such trampling of their religious convictions,” according to a statement from the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) read by Kenda Bartlett, a trustee of the Southern Baptist entity. “Unfortunately, the Obama administration has declared that religious conviction is not an acceptable reason for exemption from this requirement.

“The Obama administration has declared war on religion and conscience. This must not stand.”

Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R.-Tenn., said at the news conference, “It is the first time ever, the first time ever in this country, that we are seeing a fee on faith. … And when that happens, religious liberty is not free.”

In support of their contention that the mandate fight is not over contraception, speakers made these points:

— The federal government spent nearly $2 billion on family planning in the 2011 fiscal year, Monahan said.

— Nine of 10 insurance providers cover contraceptives approved by the Food and Drug Administration, she said.

— More than 8,000 clinics in this country offer birth control “at little or no cost, and it is universally available in any number of retail stores,” said Charmaine Yoest, president of Americans United for Life.

“Clearly, [contraception] is readily accessible. What is at stake here is the Obama administration’s agenda of forcing all Americans to pay for life-ending drugs,” Yoest told reporters.

“Pregnancy is not a disease for which ending an unborn life is the cure.”

Penny Nance, president of Concerned Women for America, said at the news conference, “Although there may be diversity among us regarding the [issue] of contraceptives, we stand united in defense of religious freedom. When religious groups are forced to deny their deeply held religious convictions, it’s not called ‘balance,’ as this administration says. No, I’m sorry, it’s called ‘tyranny.'”

Day Gardner, president of the National Black Pro-life Union, issued a warning, saying Americans “must realize that if this mandate is allowed to stand that this administration could use the same exact authority to mandate that all health plans pay for elective abortion on demand.”

The news conference provided something of a counterweight to the message promoted by Democrats in Congress and family planning/abortion rights advocates that protests against the mandate are based on opposition to women’s rights and contraceptives.

“It’s thrown about as if women are one big monolithic group with [Sen.] Barbara Boxer as our self-appointed spokesperson,” Nance told reporters. “Let me be very clear that neither Barbara Boxer nor Kathleen Sebelius nor Cecile Richards represents any of us standing here today.”

Sebelius is secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, which issued the mandate. Richards is president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, which operates a chain of family planning clinics as the country’s leading abortion provider.

Others speaking at the March 1 news conference were Rep. Diane Black, R.-Tenn., and representatives of the Independent Women’s Forum, Eagle Forum, American Association of Christian Schools, Liberty University and the Young Women for America chapter at Liberty University.

The ERLC statement was written by Richard Land, its president, and Barrett Duke, its vice president for public policy and research.

Supporters of stronger conscience protections in the contraceptive/abortion mandate are backing a House bill by Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, R.-Neb., that was a companion to the Senate proposal that was tabled. Fortenberry has 219 co-sponsors for his legislation, which is the Respect for Rights of Conscience Act, H.R. 1179.
Tom Strode is the Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).