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Wanted: Women on Birth Control, Not Men on Ham Sandwiches

Dena Sher,
ACLU Washington Legislative Office
Sarah Lipton-Lubet,
ACLU Washington Legislative Office
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February 17, 2012

Yesterday’s House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform hearing on the new HHS rule that requires insurance plans to include birth control with no co-pay (except for those held by churches or religiously affiliated nonprofits like universities) has caused quite a stir. A few observations:

First: Birth control is not a ham sandwich. Bishop William Lori, a witness on an all-male panel, told a less-than-persuasive “parable” that tried to make the comparison. But, being able to decide whether to use contraception isn’t like deciding which sandwich to order at the deli: if you can’t have a ham sandwich, try tuna instead. Contraception, however, is basic and necessary health care that 99 percent of women use at some point in their lives.

Second: When discussing women’s reproductive health care, it’s best to have women on the panel to talk about what it means when you can’t get access to it. The Committee heard from a lot of men. Indeed, Committee chairman Darrel Issa (R-CA) shut out a law student whose insurance coverage is currently barred from covering contraception. He told her she couldn’t testify about the “financial, medical, and emotional burdens” lack of coverage creates, because she was not “qualified.”

In response, Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) reminded the room that “the tens of millions of women across the country who want and need insurance coverage for basic preventive health care services, including family planning” need to have their voices heard, and emphatically stated that women “will not be forced back to [a] primitive era.” Remarking on the same problem, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) suggested that she “may at some point be moved to explain biology to [her] colleagues.” (Her colleagues aren’t the only ones who need help. Today, on national television, a prominent political donor offered an unsolicited tip to all the women out there who care about having insurance that covers their health care needs: “Back in my days, they used Bayer Aspirin for contraceptives. The gals put it between their knees and it wasn’t that costly.”)

Third: Despite the attempts to obfuscate it, the hearing was about contraception. The majority and their witnesses quoted Thomas Jefferson, Mahatma Ghandi, Martin Luther King Jr., and yes, even Josef Stalin on religion and society, in an effort to prove the hearing was about religious liberty; but they were less than convincing. The entire premise was wrong: Insurance coverage for contraception is not a threat to religious liberty. Every single person who testified before the Committee, representing religious bodies and religiously affiliated colleges and universities, will not have to directly provide contraception coverage to their employees.

So instead they spent time talking about whether any employer should be able to deny his employees insurance coverage for birth control because of his own beliefs. Even the hypothetical Taco Bell franchise mentioned by the general counsel to the Catholic bishops last week. (One pundit aptly explained the campaign to end insurance coverage for contraception like this: “Stop the federal government from regulating the Church of the Taco Bell Manager!“)

Yesterday’s hearing clearly demonstrated what this episode has been about all along: rolling back access to contraception. And that, my friends, is no ham sandwich.

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