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Contraception rule stirs controversy

Published: Thursday, Feb. 9, 2012 5:30 a.m. CDT

The Obama administration’s new rule requiring Catholic hospitals and universities to provide contraceptives in their health care plans has prompted sparks to fly on both sides of the issue.

Catholics and GOP leaders are decrying the rule – part of the Affordable Care Act – as a violation of the First Amendment religious freedom. Democratic congresswomen say the benefit is a scientifically based health issue that is long overdue for women.

Penny Wiegert, a spokeswoman for the Rockford Diocese, said contraception is contrary to their teachings and that the rule violates religious freedom guaranteed by the Constitution.

“We do not consider contraception to be health care – but we are not opposed to this strictly because of that,” Wiegert said. “We see this as a fundamental attack on our free exercise of our beliefs within our church. It’s really an erosion of what has been guaranteed to everybody, not just Catholics. If we stand by and let this go, there will be another domino in the line to fall. If we let this one liberty go, what is the next one?”

Wiegert said Catholic leaders would use the yearlong phase-in period to urge lawmakers to reverse the rule. The provision goes into effect Aug. 1. Churches are exempt.

In a speech from the House floor Wednesday, Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said the new rule was “an unambiguous attack on religious freedom in our country.”

“This rule would require faith-based employers – including Catholic charities, schools, universities, and hospitals – to provide services they believe are immoral,” Boehner said. “In imposing this requirement, the federal government has drifted dangerously beyond its constitutional boundaries, encroaching on religious freedom.”

Boehner vowed the rule will not stand.

But Democratic House women, U.S. Reps. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, Jan Schakowsky of Illinois, Lois Capps of California and Gwen Moore of Wisconsin, praised the change in a press conference hosted by Americans United for Change.

“That all women should have access to contraception without copay is a common sense reform that is long overdue,” DeLauro said. “This is a victory for women.”

DeLauro said the administration contracted with the Institute of Medicine, an independent, nonprofit agency that serves as the health arm of the National Academy of Sciences, to arrive at requiring contraception as one of many preventative services.

“It [contraception] is one of the most common health care services accessed by women,” DeLauro said. “As both a Catholic and an advocate of women’s health, I believe that these guidelines strike the necessary balance between increasing access to health care services for women while respecting the religious beliefs of all Americans.”

DeLauro said 28 states, including Connecticut, already mandate contraception coverage for faith-based employers.

Schakowski said if Catholic hospitals and universities want to be part of the business world, contraception should be part of their health care coverage.

“Health care benefits should not depend on who the boss is,” Schakowski said. “Taking this away would be devastating to millions of workers.”

Schakowski said she was amazed that in the year 2012, controversy still remains over women’s access to birth control.

“All women should have access to contraception, have it without a copay and have it no matter where they work,” Schakowski said. “That is the issue. Virtually all women use birth control. It is preventive health care. … Birth control is also a matter of individual choice. Catholic women use birth control in the same proportions as all other women.”

U.S. Rep. Randy Hultgren,  R-Winfield, said the new provision goes against the religious freedom that America was founded on.

“It is unbelievable for the government to be stepping in and going after freedom of conscience,” Hultgren said. “It’s unprecedented to force institutions and individuals to violate their conscience. We are seeing such outrage from around the country to something so fundamental to our founding, freedom of conscience.”

Hultgren said he hoped Obama and his administration would agree it is a mistake and back off.

“And that’s OK; we all make mistakes,” Hultgren said.

White House press secretary Jay Carney would not say whether the president would veto a bill to overturn the birth-control mandate.

• The Washington Post contributed to this report.

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