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To conceive or not to conceive: Administration takes heat over contraceptives

Published: Friday, Feb. 3 2012 4:08 p.m. MST

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius is seen in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington. Federal law lays out several criteria for the government to determine which are religious. But in the case of the contraception mandate, critics say Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius chose the narrowest ones.

Associated Press

WASHINGTON, D.C. — While many struggle to have children, others are struggling not to.

A couple weeks after the Department of Health and Human Services mandated that employers — including religious organizations that serve the public — provide insurance coverage for FDA-approved sterilization procedures and contraceptive drugs, the Associated Press reports a federal judge in Tacoma, Wash., is considering whether pharmacies will be required to sell the Plan B drug or other emergency contraceptives in the state.

This is the second time U.S. District Judge Ronald Leighton will be hearing the case between the state and Ralph's Thriftway in Olympia and two licensed Washington pharmacists, who refused to dispense the drug because post-intercourse contraceptives would infringe on their religious beliefs because it can prevent the implantation of a fertilized egg.

Leighton ruled in favor of the pharmacists in 2007 but was overruled by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals due to the fact the law was religiously neutral and did not target a specific group of people. However, as reported in the Seattle Post Intelligencer, Leighton said this was a weightier matter than many other freedom-of-religion cases, such as those concerning religious dress or other ceremonial matters.

"The question of life and death is serious," he thundered at an attorney for the state. "It's not facial hair, it's not a burka... I do not know when life begins, but I will not denigrate somebody's view of when life begins."

The case comes on the heels of the FDA recommendation to provide the Plan B One-Step pill over the counter to all sexually active girls and women as reported by CNN. However, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius overruled that recommendation, mandating that girls younger than 17 must have a prescription.

"Because I do not believe enough data were presented to support the application ... I have directed FDA to issue a complete response letter denying the supplemental new drug application," Seblius said in a statement.

The Obama administration's decision upset many women's rights groups as well as many of the president's own party. Dolores J. Lamb, president of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, expressed disappointment the administration ignored the FD,A saying, "Sadly, it appears that once again our leaders are putting political expediency ahead of reproductive health."

However, the administration is receiving heat from both sides of the contraceptive debate, as the Health and Human Services Jan. 20 mandate to provide insurance coverage for FDA-approved sterilization procedures and contraceptive drugs —including some abortifacient drugs — has brought on the ire of the Catholic church. The policy, which would go in effect on Aug. 1, 2012, would require Catholic universities, hospitals and social services to provide FDA-approved contraceptives, such as the birth control pill and Plan B, through health insurance plans.

"What's offensive is that we're being told — our Catholic institutions which serve this nation well — are being told, you who find these things offensive, you should pay for them. In fact, you must pay for them," Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the archbishop of Washington, told CNN.

Presidential hopeful Mitt Romney also criticized Obama in a Feb. 3 Washington Examiner column titled “President Obama vs. religious liberty.”

“I stand with the Catholic bishops and all religious organizations in their strenuous objection to this liberty and conscience-stifling regulation,” Romney wrote. "If elected … on day one I will eliminate the Obama administration rule that compels religious institutions to violate the tenets of their own faith."

Despite Romney's words, C.J. Doyle of the Catholic Action League told the Boston Globe Romney has a "very mixed record" on the contraception issue. In 2005, the former governor of Massachusetts required all Massachusetts hospitals, including Catholic ones, to provide emergency contraception to rape victims. Romney did veto the law, but after his veto was overruled he told Boston Globe that "in his heart of hearts’’ he believed that rape victims should have access to emergency contraception.

“The initial injury to Catholic religious freedom came not from the Obama administration but from the Romney administration," Doyle said. “President Obama’s plan certainly constitutes an assault on the constitutional rights of Catholics, but I’m not sure Governor Romney is in a position to assert that, given his own very mixed record on this.’’

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