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Contentious House Hearing Underscores Divides in Contraceptive Coverage Debate

Contentious House Hearing Underscores Divides in Contraceptive Coverage Debate

February 17, 2012 — Female Democrats on Thursday walked out of a House committee hearing after Chair Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) refused to add a woman to an all-male panel slated to testify about religious freedom and the federal contraceptive coverage rules, The Hill reports (Baker/Lillis, The Hill, 2/16).

Issa said that the House Oversight and Reform Committee hearing was about freedom of religion, not contraception, and that the Democrats' witness -- a law student -- did not have the proper credentials to testify (Abrams, AP/San Francisco Chronicle, 2/16).

CQ Today notes that the hearing mainly featured political displays, rather than policy-related action, as the committee does not have jurisdiction over health care issues. All of the witnesses testified against the contraceptive coverage rules, including the changes announced by the Obama administration last week (Norman, CQ Today, 2/16). In that announcement, the administration said religiously affiliated employers will not have to offer contraceptive coverage for their employees, but their insurers will be required to provide the coverage directly to women at no charge (Women's Health Policy Report, 2/16).

The five witnesses on the first panel at the hearing were all male professors or religious leaders, including a Catholic bishop (Feder [1], Politico, 2/16). The second panel included two women, both of whom testified against the contraceptive coverage rules (Pear, New York Times, 2/16).

Democrats had sought to include as a witness Sandra Fluke, a student at Georgetown University Law Center and past president of the school's Law Students for Reproductive Justice group. Fluke planned to testify about how students at the Jesuit school are affected by a lack of coverage of contraception (Kliff, "Wonkblog," Washington Post, 2/16).

Democrats and women's groups said Issa's refusal to add Fluke as a witness reinforces their message that Republicans are hostile toward women and reproductive health care (Feder [2], Politico, 2/16). An image of the all-male first panel spread rapidly Thursday on Twitter and blogs (Baker/Lillis, "Healthwatch," The Hill, 2/16). 

Rep. Gerald Connolly (D-Va.) called the hearing a "sham" created to promote Republicans' "political agenda."

Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) said, "It's outrageous that the Republicans would not allow a single individual representing the tens of millions of women who want and need insurance coverage for basic preventive health care services, including family planning" (Pear, New York Times, 2/16).

Survey Considers Insurers' Costs

In related news, a recent survey of 15 major health plans found that 40% believe their costs will increase because of the requirement that they provide contraceptive coverage to women who work for religiously affiliated employers at no charge, Reuters reports. The Obama administration has said insurers will recoup any initial costs by avoiding expenses associated with unintended pregnancies.

Among the insurers surveyed, 20% said costs would even out because they already budget for contraception in their premiums, 6.7% said the requirement would raise pharmacy costs but decrease medical costs, 33.3% said they were not sure and none said the requirement would lead to savings (Krauskopf, Reuters, 2/16).

Religious Groups Equate Birth Control With Abortion

The New York Times reports that the Catholic bishops and some evangelical leaders consider certain forms of contraception, including emergency contraception and intrauterine devices, to be "abortifacients" because they contend the methods can prevent pregnancy after an egg is fertilized. However, several scientists and physicians interviewed by the Times said the methods do not actually work in this way (Belluck/Eckholm, New York Times, 2/16).

Santorum Seeks To Distance Himself From Donor's Remarks

In other news Thursday, Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum attempted to distance himself from a high-profile donor's controversial remarks on contraception, the AP/San Francisco Chronicle reports (Peoples, AP/San Francisco Chronicle, 2/16).

Foster Friess -- the largest donor to Santorum's political action committee -- said in an interview with MSNBC, "Back in my days, they used Bayer aspirin for contraceptives," adding, "The gals put it between their knees and it wasn't that costly" (Camia, USA Today, 2/16). Santorum said the comment was a "stupid joke" that was made "in bad taste," adding that he is not responsible for what his supporters say (AP/San Francisco Chronicle, 2/16).

Even without the Friess comment, Santorum's hard-line stance on social issues has been drawing "a closer look," especially as he has pulled ahead of Mitt Romney in some states, the AP/Sacramento Bee reports. Polls show that the vast majority of U.S. residents disagree with Santorum's positions on contraception, abortion and various social issues, such as the role of women in the workplace and the military (Cass/Agiesta, AP/Sacramento Bee, 2/17).