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Governor's race takes on birth control

Hassan calls out other candidates

A national-turned-local debate over contraception policy took center stage in the fledgling race for governor yesterday.

Democratic candidate Maggie Hassan held a press conference in the morning calling on Republican candidate Ovide Lamontagne to make his views known on the issue.

"This unbelievable attempt to turn back the clock on women's health care must be stopped," Hassan, a former state senator, said inside the Legislative Office Building in Concord. "Ovide Lamontagne needs to tell the women of New Hampshire whether he sides with them and for equitable health care, or does he side with Speaker O'Brien and his Tea Party Legislature who are attempting to repeal a long-standing and bipartisan law that guarantees women have access to contraception and basic health care in their personal insurance plans."

Reacting to a dispute over federal contraception policy, House Republican leadership has backed a bill that would overturn a 12-year-old state law requiring insurance companies to cover contraceptive visits and prescriptions if they cover other medicines and outpatient visits. The law was approved by a Republican-led Legislature in 1999 without objection from the Catholic Church, and churches that want to bypass the requirement can self-insure their employees.

Lamontagne responded to Hassan in an afternoon statement.

"If elected governor, my approach would be to support passage of legislation creating a 'conscience clause' that exempts religious organizations from government mandates to provide contraception, where doing so would violate their faith and their constitutionally protected freedom of religion," said Lamontagne, a Manchester attorney and former chairman of the state Board of Education.

Lamontagne and Republican opponent Kevin Smith, the former head of conservative advocacy group Cornerstone Action, accused Hassan of politicizing the issue.

"With her grandstanding today, Senator Hassan makes it clear to the voters of New Hampshire that she stands for the tired politics of division and an ever growing, ever encroaching state government," Lamontagne said.

Smith said "it is very unfortunate that Maggie Hassan is choosing to jump start her campaign by obsessing about social issues."

"Maggie wants to make this a campaign not about jobs, but about contraception," Smith said in a statement released shortly after Hassan's press conference. "Give me a break."

Hassan said current law "simply ensures that insurance companies treat prescriptions for women the same as they would treat any other prescription."

"Women deserve fair and equitable treatment from health insurance companies," Hassan said. "Women should have freedom to make their own health care decisions. The Legislature wants to give that power to employers. We should not go back to the days where women were paying up to $1,000 more a year out-of-pocket for basic health care."

Senate Democratic Leader Sylvia Larsen of Concord, a Hassan supporter, also spoke at the press conference.

"It is extremely discouraging that in 2012, we are forced to revisit settled issues regarding basic access to women's health care and contraception," Larsen said.

Smith and Lamontagne did not go as far as House Republicans in their positions on contraception. Where the House bill would allow all employers to object to coverage for religious reasons, the Republican candidates only pushed an exemption for religious organizations. Lamontagne said the debate is "centered on the guarantees to freedom of religion embodied in our Constitution, which are vital and must be protected."

"New Hampshire has a proud tradition of separation of church and state, and as such, most reasonable people agree that the state should not compel religious organizations to pay for services that violate tenants of those organization's beliefs - and that is where this discussion should begin and end," Smith said.

Hassan's Democratic opponent, former state senator Jackie Cilley, said in her own statement the issue is one of "protecting women's health care" and "shouldn't be about anyone's campaign or political grandstanding." The House proposal "is more extreme than any similar proposal anywhere in the country," she said.

"Reproductive access to contraception is a bipartisan issue and a concern to both men and women," Cilley said. "Radicals in the current New Hampshire Legislature are not just turning back the clock on a dozen years of bipartisan support for a law that guarantees women have access to contraception. They insist on trying to overturn long-standing New Hampshire laws and creating new barriers to basic freedoms for women rather than creating jobs and improving New Hampshire schools."

Asked about Hassan bringing the contraception debate to the governor's race, state Democratic Party Chairman Ray Buckley said "it's certainly an issue that we did not ask for."

"This is something that the Republicans put on themselves," Buckley said. If the contraception issue dominates debate ahead of November's election, Buckley predicted it will benefit his party.

"It isn't going to just going to be a landslide, it's going to be a blowout," he said.

(Matthew Spolar can be reached at 369-3309 or mspolar@cmonitor.com.)

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