Democrats: GOP Conscience Protection Amendment Would Take Us ‘Back to Medical Dark Ages’

Elizabeth Harrington | February 14, 2012 | 9:22pm EST
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( – Democratic Senators held a press conference on Tuesday to oppose a Republican-led amendment that would ensure conscience rights are protected under Obamacare, claiming the broadness of the proposal would turn the country back to the “medical dark ages” and keep women “barefoot and pregnant.”

Senators Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), Patty Murray (D-Wash.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), and Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) led the press conference on Capitol Hill to denounce the amendment proposed by Senator Roy Blunt (R-Mo.).

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The amendment, added to the federal highway reauthorization bill, would give employers the option of opting out of Obamacare’s Preventive Services Mandate for religious or moral reasons. That mandate says that all health insurance policies must cover sterilization and FDA-approved contraceptives, including those that induce abortion, free of charge.

Even if an individual or employer opposes such products or services for religious reasons they still would pay for their own health care coverage to a company that would have to provide those services to other people who wanted them. This regulation, from the Department of Health and Human Services, has been denounced by numerous religious groups, including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and by at least 158 members of Congress.

Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) AP Photo

On Tuesday, the Democratic senators blasted the Blunt amendment as being too vague, saying it would lead to any employer to deny coverage for any moral reason, and for being unrelated to the highway bill.

“In 2012, I stand here in complete amazement that in a country known for its medical breakthroughs and advancements, Republicans would have us go back to the medical dark ages,” said Sen. Boxer.

“This is an attack by the men’s club here who say they want to decide what’s best for women in this country,” said Sen. Lautenberg, who criticized the amendment’s 19 male cosponsors and only one female cosponsor, Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), calling it the “malegarchy.”

“The GOP agenda gives women one option: barefoot and pregnant,” Sen. Lautenberg said.  “It’s time to tell the Republicans to mind their own business.”

Blunt introduced the amendment to virtually rescind the controversial Health and Human Services mandate.

“This is about the First Amendment. It’s about religious beliefs. It’s not about any one issue,” said Sen. Blunt in floor statements when he attempted to introduce the amendment on Feb. 9.

Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) (AP Photo)

“This bill would just simply say that those health care providers don't have to follow that mandate if it violates their faith principles, and whether it's faith principles that are part of a health care delivery system that could be through any number of different faith groups – and I’ve talked to a lot of them,” he said.

“The Blunt Amendment is nothing to do with religion,” said Sen. Boxer after the press conference.  “It says that anybody in this country who has a conviction that they shouldn’t have to provide chemotherapy to children, HIV/cancer screening, breast cancer screening, birth control, anything they decide they oppose on a moral ground, they don’t have to do it.”

“This amendment will allow any employer, a barber, a banker, a multi-national corporation to be given an exemption to not cover contraception or any essential preventative benefit for any religious or moral reason,” said Sen. Murray.

“Now, I didn’t just misspeak, that’s exactly what this amendment does,” she continued.  “And we didn’t just magically go back 50 years in time when limitations on women’s access to contraception like this were commonplace.  But make no mistake.  That amendment will take us back there.”

Murray called Blunt’s amendment “extreme” and “dangerous.”

The Democratic senators handed out a press release from the liberal National Women’s Law Center, which claims the amendment will create loopholes that employers can exploit.

The press release lists hypothetical health services that the group alleges will be curtailed if the Blunt amendment is adopted.  For example, “An insurer could refuse to provide coverage of any health care service to an interracial couple because of a religious or moral objection to such relationships,” claims the law center, and “An employer could refuse to cover screening for Type 2 Diabetes in its plan because of a religious or moral objection to a perceived unhealthy lifestyle.”

Given the widespread criticism of the HHS amendment as a violation of religious liberty, President Obama announced on Feb. 10 what he characterized as “a solution that works for everyone.”

Under this solution, all health-insurance plans in the United States would be forced by the government to cover sterilizations, contraceptives and abortifacients free of charge. But, as Obama described it, if a woman works for a religious hospital or charity that objects to these services, the insurance company -- not the employer -- would pay to provide the services to the woman free of charge.

“Under the rule, women will still have access to free preventive care that includes contraceptive services--no matter where they work. So that core principle remains,” the president said. “But if a woman’s employer is a charity or a hospital that has a religious objection to providing contraceptive services as part of their health plan, the insurance company--not the hospital, not the charity--will be required to reach out and offer the woman contraceptive care free of charge, without co-pays and without hassles.”

Late on Friday, the Catholic bishops responded, saying that this “solution” was “unacceptable.”

“It would still mandate that all insurers must include coverage for the objectionable services in all the policies they would write,” the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said in a statement.

Sen. Blunt was also critical of the so-called compromise, calling it an “accounting gimmick.”

“I’ll continue to work with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to ensure that we reverse this unconstitutional mandate in its entirety,” he said, in a statement in response to the president’s plan.
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