Diana DeGette: Bishops' Efforts Causing Confusion On Birth Control Rule

WASHINGTON -- Rep. Diana DeGette, co-chair of the Congressional Pro Choice Caucus, said that at least three of her progressive colleagues, whom she declined to name, have expressed "confusion" over whether to support the Obama administration's new birth control coverage rule after receiving personal phone calls from their Catholic bishops.

DeGette, a Democrat from Colorado, told HuffPost that the caucus had a briefing Wednesday with a panel of ethicists, doctors and hospital administrators to clarify what the contraception requirement does in order to end some of that confusion.

"The bishops are a very powerful group, as we learned during the health care debate," she said. "We had very good attendance at our briefing today because there's a lot of misinformation from the bishops and a lot of confusion among members about what this rule means. Everybody felt like it sort of hit them this week."

The rule, announced in January by the Department of Health and Human Services, requires most employers to offer health insurance plans that cover birth control with no co-pay. Religious entities who employ mostly people of one faith and have the inculcation of religious values as their main purpose, such as churches and other houses of worship, are exempt from the rule. All other employers who morally object to birth control and don't currently cover it for their employees have an extra year to adjust to the new rule.

But the Catholic bishops consider the rule an assault on religious freedom because it doesn't also exempt religiously affiliated employers, such as Catholic schools and hospitals, and they have intensified their lobbying campaign. Bishops all over the country read letters to their congregations this past Sunday urging them to call Congress and the White House and demand that the decision be reversed.

"The federal government, which claims to be 'of, by and for the people,' has just dealt a heavy blow to almost a quarter of those people -- the Catholic population -- and to the millions more who are served by the Catholic faithful," Bishop Timothy A. McDonnell of Springfield, Mass., told his congregation on Sunday. "We cannot -- we will not -- comply with this unjust law."

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops did not respond to a request for comment.

Prominent political leaders, including House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, have also sharply criticized the rule in recent days. Boehner said on the House floor Wednesday that if President Barack Obama does not repeal the rule, Congress will legislatively override it; Senate Republicans echoed that sentiment in a press conference the same day.

But DeGette pointed out Wednesday that she hasn't seen Congress repudiate a rule like this in the 15 years she's been in office, and she's not sure it's even possible to use legislation to reverse a rule before it has been promulgated. While the birth control requirement was announced in January, it hasn't yet gone into effect.

"I'm not sure they've thought this through," she said. "They're trying to make a political point, but the fact is that a lot of what they're saying about the issue is not true."

One point of contention is whether the rule forces employers to cover abortifacients.

"This rule would require faith-based employers -- including Catholic charities, schools, universities, and hospitals -- to provide services they consider immoral," Boehner argued in his floor speech. "Those services include sterilization, abortion-inducing drugs and devices, and contraception."

In fact, the rule covers emergency contraception, which the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology states is different from medication abortion because it actually prevents an unwanted pregnancy from occurring.

Supporters of the birth control rule also take issue with it being characterized as "an assault on religious freedom." They argue that the alternative, which is allowing employers to cherry-pick health benefits for the women they employ based on the employers' religious beliefs, encroaches on individual liberty.

"My question is: Who has the conscience? The employer who might have some generalized religious charter, but who's employing vast numbers of people who aren't of that religion, or the individual who's exercising his own religious conscience?" DeGette asked.

Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) predicted to reporters that if Republican lawmakers try to repeal the new rule through legislation, there will be a massive backlash equal to the one that hit Susan G. Komen for the Cure last week when it tried to defund Planned Parenthood.

"We saw a mobilization of women around the country that was unprecedented when breast cancer screenings were going to be taken away from Planned Parenthood," Schakowsky said. "We've seen ourselves be discriminated against in health care before, and we're not going to go backwards. It will be at their peril that they try to undo this."

The Obama administration said Wednesday that it has no plans to back down on the birth control rule, although it will work with faith-based organizations to help them implement it.