Tempers flared on Capitol Hill on Thursday as lawmakers waded into an increasingly heated debate over the mandated coverage of contraceptives under the nation’s new health-care law.
Several Democrats walked out of a House hearing on the provision, accusing Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) of blocking testimony from a female witness who supports the mandate.
The stormy hearing — and a comment from a key supporter of Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum that quickly drew fury — provided further evidence of how the issue remains political dynamite despite the Obama administration’s efforts to reach a compromise.
Foster Friess, the Santorum backer, told MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell on Thursday that he favors an “inexpensive” form of birth control — abstinence.
“You know, back in my days, they used Bayer aspirin for contraception,” he said. “The gals put it between their knees, and it wasn’t that costly.”
Women’s groups denounced Friess’s remarks.
“Birth control is basic health care and used almost universally by women,” said Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood. “It is not something to belittle on national TV.”
Santorum, who was speaking at an event in Novi, Mich., on Thursday, said in response to Friess’s comment: “Foster is a well-known jokester. That was a stupid joke. I’m not responsible for every bad joke someone I happen to know or who supports me tells.” He added, “Obviously I don’t agree with the basic premise.”
Both in Congress and on the campaign trail, the reproductive-health debate has centered on the requirement that employers provide preventive-care services to women at no cost, including contraceptives. Initial regulations allowed churches to opt out, but required faith-based universities and hospitals to comply.
After a backlash, the White House revised that rule. Under the new accommodations, employees at faith-based institutions that object to contraceptives will have them paid for by insurance companies.
Some religious leaders contend that the new rule does not go far enough to ensure that their premium dollars do not get spent on contraceptives.
Ten faith leaders accused the Obama administration of violating religious freedom, as they testified at a five-hour hearing on Thursday before the panel.
“This provision is draconian in that it invades the realm of conscience for us,” said Matthew Harrison, an official with the Lutheran Church in Missouri.
“The issue here is forcing the church to provide [contraceptives] directly or indirectly in contravention of the Church’s teachings,” said William E. Lori, who chairs the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’s Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty. “That’s what we don't want to do. It’s one thing when tax dollars pay for it; it’s another when church dollars do.”
Several Democrats walked out of the hearing, accusing Issa of not allowing testimony from a witness, Sandra Fluke, a third-year law student at Georgetown University. She has pressured the school to cover contraceptives in its student health plan since she arrived on campus.
“My testimony would have been about women who have been affected by their policy, who have medical needs and have suffered dire consequences,” Fluke told reporters. “The committee did not get to hear real stories I had to share, about actual women who have been dramatically affected by this policy.”
Issa said that, after a staff review, he had not found Fluke “appropriate and qualified” to testify before his committee. “I cannot and will not arbitrarily take a majority or minority witness if they do not have the appropriate credentials,” he said Thursday.
Democrats at the hearing defended the birth control provision as crucial for women’s health and noted that many women use contraceptives for purposes other than preventing pregnancy.
“Are you morally opposed to allowing women who work in your facilities, many of whom are not religious . . . are you opposed to allowing them to take a pill in cases where their lives depend on it?” said Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), who survived ovarian cancer.
Catholic universities are still sorting out whether they will comply with the new provision or no longer provide health insurance to their employees.
“The health-care law makes the decision almost impossible,” said John Garvey, president of Catholic University of America, who also testified. “There’s a fine of almost $2,000 [per employee] per year if we don’t provide insurance. We’re not an institution rich enough to afford that penalty, so I’m trying to not look that far down the road.”
Staff writer Rosalind S. Helderman contributed to this report.