Birth control opt-out passed

Last modified: Thursday, March 08, 2012
All employers, not just church organizations, would be able to deny insurance coverage for contraception and sterilization care on religious grounds under a bill that passed the House 196-150 yesterday.

The bill was championed by House Speaker Bill O'Brien, and its drafter, Rep. Andrew Manuse, a Derry Republican, relied on help from a lobbyist for the state's Catholic Church. It heads next to the Senate.

But opponents still found two reasons to celebrate yesterday, albeit soberly.

They said the bill's backers don't have enough votes to override a veto by the governor should he issue one; 59 Republicans voted with Democrats against the bill. And, opponents said, the debate brought out a new crowd of voters.

"If you look around, they woke up the young women," said Democratic Rep. Candace Bouchard of Concord outside the State House after the vote. Around Bouchard were nearly 250 men and women protesting the vote, some of them from Concord High.

Lucy MacIntosh, 17, a senior at the school, was holding a sign that read, "Keep your rosaries off my ovaries." MacIntosh said she decided to join the protest after talking to classmates about the bill yesterday morning. They got so upset, she said, several got a school pass and walked to the State House to protest during lunch.

"Nothing has ever struck me like this," said MacIntosh. "I think it's really close to home for a lot of kids as they are getting ready to head off to college. It's 2012, and we all know that a lot of kids are having sex at this age."

Several protesters confronted lawmakers when they emerged from the State House after the vote, and a few lawmakers stopped to answer questions and talk with the protesters.

Rep. Brandon Giuda, a Chichester Republican, got into a debate with Jillian Dubois, 25, of Hudson.

Dubois pays $35 a month for her contraception under insurance offered by her husband's employer. She said she should not have to practice abstinence with her husband if she can't afford contraceptive care and doesn't want to have 11 children like her great- grandmother did.

Giuda responded, "Contraception has nothing to do with your health. It's not a radical thing. If people want to have sex, they should take precautions and pay for those themselves."

Giuda added that he is self-employed and has seen his insurance premiums rise because the state mandates that so many treatments be covered by insurance. "Take responsibility for you own choices," he told Dubois. "My wife and I have been doing that for 30 years."

Dubois said she was shocked by the vote and stances like Giuda's.

"It's so ridiculous that we are fighting for this right in 2012," she said. "I'm shocked that this many people could be this discriminatory against women."

House Democratic Leader Terie Norelli of Portsmouth was greeted with applause when she left the State House and stopped to talk with protesters.

O'Brien, however, wasn't.

As he came down the front steps of the State House at the lunch break, several protesters gathered and followed him toward Main Street, telling him, "Shame on you."

O'Brien didn't respond, witnesses said.

And during the House floor debate he threatened to have protesters removed from the gallery after they cheered for testimony against the bill. He said their "obligation" was to sit and listen and not participate.

"You will not disrupt the business of New Hampshire," O'Brien said.

Gov. John Lynch hasn't said whether he will veto the bill should it reach his desk, but he has said he thinks the state's existing law on contraception coverage works well.

Passed 12 years ago with bipartisan support, the law now requires employers to cover contraception prescriptions if they offer insurance coverage for other prescriptions. There is no religious objection, as is proposed in the bill, but any employer is exempted from the mandate if they self-insure. The Diocese of Manchester does.

Church officials did not object to the law when it was proposed and passed 12 years ago and had not objected until O'Brien challenged it for the first time a few weeks ago.

Yesterday, House Republican leaders looked to their female members to argue for the bill on the House floor yesterday.

Rep. Laurie Sanborn, a Henniker Republican who, with her husband, owns The Draft restaurant on Main Street in Concord, said the mandate is unfair to small business owners and to those with religious objections to birth control.

"Somehow we are in a war against women when we want women and men to pay for their own birth control and sterilization," Sanborn said.

Rep. Jennifer Coffey, an Andover Republican, faulted the media for misrepresenting the debate. "The media has tried to demonize, separate and anger without providing the truth," she said. "This bill has nothing to do with health care."

Coffey said those women who need contraceptives to treat health conditions - as opposed to preventing pregnancy - would still receive insurance coverage for their medications.

And Deputy Speaker Pam Tucker of Greenland said this bill is solely about protecting religious freedoms, not denying women access to birth control.

"Many believe in a woman's right to choose," Tucker said, "and this bill does not infringe on that."

Democrats disagreed vehemently.

Rep. Christopher Serlin, a Portsmouth Democrat, said employers already have ways to assert a religious objection to provding contraception coverage. They can choose not to offer health insurance, choose not to offer prescription coverage or self-insure instead.

"Offering health care to your employees in not an act of faith," Serlin said. "It's a business transaction."

Bouchard said the bill not only discriminates against women by eliminating coverage for contraception but also tramples on an individual's religious freedoms.

"A religious institution does not have the right over the individual citizens (to exercise) their rights of religious freedoms," Bouchard said. "The constitutional rights of the citizen trump the constitutional rights of the institution."

Democratic gubernatorial candidates Jackie Cilley and Maggie Hassan issued press releases objecting to the bill yesterday. And U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, who signed the state's existing law 12 years ago, responded via Twitter.

"We should NOT be unraveling advances in women's health," her tweet read.

(Annmarie Timmins can be reached at 369-3323 or at atimmins@cmonitor.com.)