(CNSNews.com) – In response to Democrats’ complaints about "Where are the women?" in the debate over whether health insurance companies can be forced by the government to offer contraceptives and abortion drugs, the Heritage Foundation hosted an all-female panel to denounce the Health and Human Services (HHS) mandate on Monday.
“So where are the women? Here we are!” said Maggie Karner, in reference to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) question from Feb. 16. Pelosi had characterized a hearing that day on the HHS mandate and religious liberty as being strictly about “women’s health,” not religious freedom, and criticized it for lacking testimony from women although the afternoon panel had included two women.
The Heritage event on Monday, “Women Speak Out: Obamacare Tramples Religious Liberty,” featured female experts on religion and individual liberty, including Rep. Ann Marie Buerkle (R-N.Y.), a former nurse and health care attorney, who called the Obamacare regulation “the largest single intrusion of the federal government on constitutional rights.”
“There’s been plenty of coverage of this controversy, but we’ve also seen a willful neglect of the many women’s voices that are speaking out in opposition to this mandate,” said Jennifer Marshall, director of domestic policy studies at Heritage, a conservative think tank.
“Obviously we can get a group of women together to talk about something that, well, really isn’t just about women at all,” said Maggie Karner, director of Life and Health Ministries for the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod.
“We’re here to advocate for basic religious freedom,” she said. “And I don’t really give a rip what gender is speaking about religious freedom as long as somebody is talking about it.”
As part of Obamacare, the HHS mandate requires all health insurers to offer sterilizations and FDA-approved contraceptives, including those that induce abortion, such as the drug “ella.” The rule was finalized on Jan. 20, sparking nationwide opposition from religious organizations, most notably the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), and at least 158 members of Congress.
President Barack Obama then announced an “accommodation” to the rule on Feb. 10, shifting the burden to health insurers to provide contraceptive care “free of charge,” making religious institutions pay indirectly for the care. Nevertheless, the final rule published in the Federal Register on Feb. 14 provided no change to the initial rule.
Since then, politicians have battled over control of the debate, with Democrats, such as Pelosi, framing the issue as one of “women’s health,” and religious leaders who contend it violates religious liberty as guaranteed under the First Amendment. Numerous groups have filed lawsuits against the regulation, including Belmont Abbey College, Colorado Christian University, and the Eternal Word Television Network.
Kate O'Beirne, president of the National Review Institute, said it was impossible for the controversy to be about contraception because 90 percent of employers currently cover birth control through their health insurance plans and the federal government spends about $2 billion a year to provide it.
“We’re repeatedly told that over 90 percent of sexually active women use contraception,” said O’Beirne. “There wouldn’t seem to be a major access problem to contraception.”
“This is not an issue of birth control, this is not an issue of contraception or abortion, or sterilization. This issue is a First Amendment right,” said Rep. Buerkle, who had her district office picketed by the National Organization for Women (NOW) last weekend over the issue.
Buerkle wondered why NOW was not proud that she became the first woman to hold New York’s 25th District, after growing up in the 1960s where her only options, as explained by the nuns at her Catholic school, were to become a secretary, teacher, nurse or nun.
“I would contend and I would argue -- and I believe it deeply -- the only issue for these women is not women’s rights, it’s not women’s health,” said Rep. Buerkle. “It is access to abortion. And that really is what’s behind all of this.”
The panelists condemned the penalty that will be imposed on religious institutions for not complying with the regulation, calling it an “unprecedented fine on faith.” The rule is set to go into effect Aug. 1, with religious institutions given one extra year to fully comply.
Under the rule, an employer with at least 50 employees will be fined $2,000 a year for the total number of employees minus 30, resulting in penalties in the thousands of dollars.
Lori Windham, with the the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which has filed suit against the Obama administration four times over the regulation, said in many cases religious organizations will be “fined out of existence.”
Windham said the Catholic Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN), whom her organization is representing in a lawsuit, would face $620,000 in fines per year beginning in 2014.
Colorado Christian University would see $500,000 in fines. “Think about the number of scholarships you could give with $500,000,” said Windham.
Hadley Heath did not represent a religious institution, but the secular Independent Women’s Forum (IWF) an organization devoted to free markets and limited government. Heath said the issue transcends religious liberty and “strikes directly at who we are as a country.”
“The Left wants to make this a women’s health issue and the Right wants to make this a religious issue,” she said. “Well, in truth, it’s an American issue.”
A policy analyst at IWF, Heath said the mandate most importantly infringes upon personal liberty. She described the regulation as “anti-Constitution, anti-choice and anti-competition.”
“I think the real question is, is this necessary?” said Pia de Solenni, an ethicist and cultural analyst. “Are we as human beings so incompetent that we can’t make decisions for ourselves about our own health care covering the needs that we want?”
“We are losing our freedoms as Americans,” said Buerkle. “It is, I think, the largest single intrusion of the federal government on our constitutional rights.”
“There’s a broad coalition of church bodies, Protestant … our Jewish brothers and sisters and everyone is pretty much outraged by this because it’s something like we’ve never seen before,” said Karner. “It’s frightening.”