Tomorrow, the Senate will vote on Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s “Respect For Rights of Conscience” amendment. The far-reaching bill would allow any insurer or employer to deny coverage for birth control or any other medical services if they decide it conflicts with their “beliefs or moral convictions.” The measure is intended as a response to President Obama’s determination that women should have access to free preventive health care, like contraception, no matter where they work.
Mitt Romney, however, called the President’s rule “liberty—and conscience—stifling” as well as a “serious assault” on the Constitution. And after he briefly flirted with opposition to the Rubio-Blunt bill, Romney flipped within the hour to forcefully declaring, “Of course I support that amendment, I clearly want to have religious exemption from Obamacare.”
The fact is that this bill is only about one thing: restricting a woman’s right to choose what health services are right for her. Rather than empowering women to make that choice, this bill gives employers and insurance companies that power in the name of religious liberty.
But there’s a glaring fact that invalidates Romney’s claim that President Obama’s policy doesn’t respect religious beliefs: President Obama’s policy exempts religious organizations from providing contraceptive services. Under the new rule, churches and other houses of worship are completely exempt. In addition, other faith-based organizations that object to providing birth control do not have to do so. Instead, for these organizations, the responsibility to offer contraceptive services will transfer to a woman’s insurance provider. This accommodation protects the religious liberty of faith-based organizations while making sure a woman can still receive the health care services she needs.
Rubio and Blunt’s amendment doesn’t enforce religious protection. In giving any employer—a restaurant, a retail store, or a corporation—the power to deny coverage for any medical services they find “morally objectionable,” what the bill does do is reach far into Americans’ private lives and jeopardize access to crucial preventive health care services for millions of women:
Seventy-nine million women under the age of 65 received health care through their employers in 2010 and 20.4 million American women have seen their coverage for preventive services—including mammograms, cervical cancer screenings, and vaccines—expanded under the health care law. But because Rubio and Blunt’s bill allows employers to deny coverage for any medical services for “moral” reasons, these women could lose access to these services if their employers decide they object. In Blunt’s home state of Missouri, 408,000 women gained expanded access to preventive care under the Affordable Care Act. In Rubio’s home state of Florida, an estimated 1.1 million now have expanded access under the law. However, the bill offered by Rubio and Blunt would jeopardize this access for not just these women, but millions of others across the country.
The extreme amendment also allows insurance companies to object on moral grounds. Thus, as the National Women’s Law Center points out, “insurers may be able to sell plans that do not cover services required by the new health care law to an entire market because one individual objects, so all consumers in a market lose their right to coverage of the full range of critical health services.” So a man “purchasing an insurance plan offered to women and men could object to maternity coverage, so the plan would not have to cover it, even though such coverage is required as part of the essential health benefits.”
Businesses are nearly 80 percent more likely to be owned by men. Thus, the decision being made about women’s preventive care is more likely be left to men under this bill.
The leading GOP candidates paved the way for this dangerous overreach into women’s lives. Romney has said he would have supported personhood legislation in Massachusetts, which could have banned many forms of contraception and even fertility treatments like in vitro fertilization. Rick Santorum has said that contraception is dangerous because it’s “harmful to women” and “it’s a license to do things in a sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be.”
Republicans’ agenda here is not to protect religious liberty—President Obama’s rule already does that. Their goal seems to be to give employers and insurance companies the right to decide for women what health care services they can have access to. Tomorrow’s vote is about who should control a woman’s access to health care—that woman? Or her boss?