By Ralph Schwartz
Women from Mt. Baker Planned Parenthood and their congressman agreed: Recent attempts by Republicans to limit the availability of contraceptives are a cultural step backward and a distraction from more important national issues.
"It is 2012, right?" U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Everett, quipped while talking to the health care provider's board members over coffee Tuesday, March 13, at Caffé Adagio.
"It is quite a shock to me that we are debating this issue," he said.
Larsen visited the group to tell them about a bill that would amend the president's health care law by allowing health plans to refuse to offer a drug or service for religious or moral reasons. Republicans revived the Respect for Rights of Conscience Act of 2011 earlier this year after President Obama ruled that insurance companies would pay for women's contraceptives if an employer didn't want to cover them.
The bill, which Larsen said had a "50-50 chance" of reaching the floor in the next few weeks, has more than 200 sponsors in the House.
"I'm pleased that a near-majority of the House of Representatives have joined us in saying it's time to act to protect Americans' most basic rights - our religious freedom and rights of conscience," said Jeff Fortenberry, a Nebraska Republican and the bill's prime sponsor, in a Feb. 21 statement. Since then, the number of sponsors has reached 222, which is a majority of the House.
As surprised as Planned Parenthood board members were that women's access to contraception was still up for debate, they were as willing to engage in the debate.
They wondered how far health care plans could take their moral objections. Would liver transplants not be covered for alcoholics? Could a gay man who contracted HIV through sexual contact be denied medicine?
"It just will never, never end if we allow certain people to decide the moral judgments of the health care we need," said Christina Wright, director of external affairs for Mt. Baker Planned Parenthood.
Larsen and his constituents at the café both said Congress should focus on other issues; Larsen mentioned jobs and access to higher education.
Planned Parenthood representatives asked Larsen to act as a "champion" for women if the Rights of Conscience bill comes to a debate.
"We need to hear men's voices speaking out for this issue, too," Planned Parenthood Public Policy Coordinator Stephanie Kountouros said.