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Q&A: Rep. Diana DeGette on the White House’s contraceptives decision

at 05:43 PM ET, 02/08/2012

Rep. Diana DeGette

Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) is co-chair of the Congressional Pro-Choice Caucus. The group huddled this afternoon to discuss the health reform law’s mandated coverage of contraceptives that has recently come under fire. With the White House standing firm behind the provision, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has promised legislation that would overturn the rule. DeGette and I spoke this afternoon about where things stand now, what she’s heard from the White House and why she welcomes a controversy over contraceptives:

Sarah Kliff: I understand you had a meeting of the Congressional Pro-Choice Caucus this afternoon. What did you discuss there?

Rep. Diana DeGette: The White House came out with their announcement on this rule on January 27, and after that we had scheduled today’s meeting. We wanted to put together a panel of people, with some religious speakers, medical organizations and an ethicist talking about church and state separation issues. So it was really designed to be a briefing for members. But with all the attention this has gotten lately, we got record turnout. There were a couple dozen members and a lot of staff.

SK: What kind of questions did people have?

DD: It was good information for members. What they wanted to know was whether it was a violation of the First Amendment separation of religion and state, and the answer was “no” because the institutions that are affected are not, at their core, working on religious issues. There have been court decisions that say if a Church is doing additional work, like a hospital or a university, they have to comply with all the laws that other employers do.

Also members were interested to know about the 28 states that already have contraceptives mandates.

There’s been a lot of speculation about whether the White House will change this rule, with some suggestions of a compromise. What have you heard from the administration?

We’ve been talking to them. [My chief of staff] talked to the White House this afternoon and, as far as we know, they’re standing behind it. I’m going to be talking to Secretary Sebelius this afternoon. The thing we need to remember is that this current rule is already a compromise, because there’s an exemption for religious institutions. It would be difficult to see what additional compromise we could do.

This is a compromise and I think that’s important to know. It’s very similar to most of the states that have already done this.

What are you planning to discuss with Secretary Sebelius later this afternoon?

I just want to tell her that the administration did the right thing and that we’re going to stand by the decision. It’s a science-based decision.

What do you make of the uptick in interest in this provision? As you mentioned, this rule has been out for two weeks now, but the attention has really seemed to ramp up in the past few days.

We were told about the president’s decision about an hour before it was announced to the public. So last week, we responded to some inquires and scheduled the briefing we had today. But it didn’t hit big time until this Sunday [when the Catholic Church had bishops read a letter to congregants opposing the decision]. We’ve been fielding a lot more questions since it’s been in the press more.

A lot of the allegations that have been out there from the bishops are incorrect. They’ve been saying that individual churches would have to cover birth control, which is incorrect. So we’ve been working to correct that.

Tell me a bit more about the politics of this. There have been a significant number of arguments made that this is bad politics for Democrats and the White House, to be involved in this controversy. What’s your view?

Let me put it this way: 98 percent of Catholic women have used birth control. The vast majority of women have used birth control. For those women, they see it as part of their essential health care. If the Republican presidential candidate and whoever else wants to start having that debate, that is a debate I welcome.

If legislation comes to the floor, we’ll be working against it, and we’ll be talking about why coverage for birth control is a vital part of women’s health care.

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