Women's Health vs. Religious Freedom: House Leaders Debate Birth Control Mandate

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As the Senate voted today to kill a measure to repeal President Obama's birth control mandate, the top two leaders of the House of Representatives disagreed sharply over whether such a rule should be imposed on employers.

Earlier today, the Senate voted narrowly to table the Blunt amendment, which would have allowed employers to refuse to include contraception in health care coverage if  it violated their religious or moral beliefs.

But moments before the vote, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., called the Senate GOP's attempt "a blunt, sweeping overreach into women's health" that is "disrespecting women's health issues" by allowing employers to cut basic health services for women, such as contraception, mammograms, prenatal and cervical cancer screenings, and other preventive care.

"The Republicans are kicking off Women's History Month by bringing the Blunt amendment to the floor in the United States Senate," Pelosi said today at her weekly news conference. "They're focused on the extreme Blunt amendment, rather than on a vigorous job creation."

A short time later, across the aisle, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, called the mandate an "infringement on religious liberty" and said that the Senate amendment is just one legislative option, in addition to "a couple of ideas in the House."

"It's important for us to win this issue," Boehner emphasized. "Our government for 220 years has respected the religious views of the American people and for all of this time there's been an exception for those churches and other groups to protect the religious beliefs that they believe in. And that's being violated here."

Pelosi disagreed that it was a religious issue, preferring to label it "a women's health issue," and said that the data shows "that 90 percent of Catholic women of childbearing age use birth control."

"It's a matter of conscience for each woman, her doctor, her husband, her family and her God to make their own decisions. And as a Catholic, I support the right of a woman to make that decision," she said. "The birth control and contraception is not just about reproduction; it's also about women. It's all in the larger sense about the fuller picture of women's health."

Asked whether the House should pass legislation that would exempt all businesses from contraception coverage requirements, the speaker said that the issue at hand is "protecting the conscience clause and the religious beliefs of the American people from an encroachment from their government."

"This is about protecting Americans' religious beliefs," Boehner said. "We've done it for 220 years. It's part of our Constitution and the government's moving in a direction that would force some Americans to violate their religious beliefs. This is wrong and we want to stop it."