March 1, 2012; Source: New York Times

The United States celebrated the first day of Women’s History Month with a legislative fight about contraception. The Senate narrowly nixed a measure that would have allowed religious based organizations—such as nonprofit Catholic charities and hospitals—to exclude health coverage for birth control for employees under the Health Care Reform Act. The vote was 51 to 48 against the amendment, which was proposed by Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) and had been tacked onto a highway bill.

Lest you think the worst was over on this issue, here is how the vote was headlined in the Christian Post: “Senate Aborts GOP Amendment on Birth Control, Religious Liberties.” A CBS News/New York Times survey, done in mid-February, found that 61 percent of the public favors the mandate for coverage of contraception and 31 percent oppose it. It further found that Catholics support the requirement at about the same rate as all Americans, though Roman Catholic leaders are pushing for the exemption.

The U.S. Senate includes 17 women, of which 12 are Democrats. Crossing the aisles, three of those Democrats voted for the amendment and one female Republican voted against it. Since this is Women’s History Month, let’s look at statements by some of the women involved in the debate on the Blunt amendment:

  • Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), who voted for the measure, said, “Many have tried to characterize this amendment as denying women access to contraception. That’s false. This measure simply allows health care providers and companies to have the same conscience rights they had before the president’s health care bill took effect.”
  • Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), an advocate for abortion rights and access to health care, was the only Republican to vote with the majority of Democrats against the measure. Snowe recently told MSNBC that she “did agree with what the president had done with respect to the mandatory requirement.” Snowe has just announced she will not stand for re-election, citing the partisanship of the legislative process as her reason. Her seat is seen as likely to be claimed by a Democrat.
  • Senator Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.) said Republicans were attacking women’s health care as part of “a systematic war against women.”
  • Kathleen Sebelius, the secretary of Health and Human Services, urged defeat of the measure, saying, “The Obama administration believes that decisions about medical care should be made by a woman and her doctor, not a woman and her boss.” –Ruth McCambridge