Women Barred from Panel in Contraception Vs. Religious Freedom Hearing

Seated in the front row: the panelists at Thursday's hearing about the Obama administration's contraception plan vs. religious freedom.
Seated in the front row: the panelists at Thursday's hearing about the Obama administration's contraception plan vs. religious freedom.

A panel of experts called to testify Thursday before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee about the Obama administration's contraceptive coverage rule included a Catholic bishop, other religious leaders, and professors -- but no women.

"What I want to know is, where are the women?" asked New York Democratic Representative Carolyn Maloney before walking out of the hearing in protest. "I look at this panel, and I don't see one single individual representing the tens of millions of women across the country who want and need insurance coverage for basic preventive health care services, including family planning."

Republican Representative Darrell Issa of California barred female witnesses from the first panel, saying that "the hearing is not about reproductive rights but instead about the administration's actions as they relate to freedom of religion and conscience." He added that the female law student the ranking Democrat wanted to include was "not an appropriate witness."

Churches and other places of worship are exempt from the Affordable Care Act rule requiring non-religious institutions (like universities and hospitals) that are run by religious organizations to offer contraception coverage in employee health plans without a co-payment. Last week, the Obama administration offered a compromise to protect religious freedom: Health insurers would have to offer contraceptive coverage directly to employees at those types of organizations, and the institutions themselves would not have to pay for, refer women to, or provide it. Even so, church leaders and some Republican politicians are opposed to the revamped rule, calling it an attack on religious freedom.

Mahoney accused Issa of wanting to "roll back the fundamental rights of women to a time when the government thought what happens in the bedroom is their business," ABC News reported.

"We will not be forced back to that primitive era," she added.

The title of the hearing is "Lines Crossed: Separation of Church and State. Has the Obama Administration Trampled on Freedom of Religion and Freedom of Conscience?" Though professors and religious officials were on the first panel, neither Catholic Charities nor the Catholic Health Association were invited to testify. Catholic Charities, which has fought similar rulings at the state level in the past, and the Catholic Health Association, which has a female CEO and runs the Catholic hospitals, both support the president's revamped contraception rule. Two women were scheduled to appear on a second panel later in the hearing; both are opposed to the contraception rule, CBS News reported.

Ranking committee member and Democrat Representative Elijah Cummings of Maryland wanted to invite third-year Georgetown Law Center student Sandra Fluke to testify at the hearing, but Issa refused to allow it.

"I cannot and will not take a majority or minority witness if they do not have the appropriate credentials," Issa said. "We are not having a hearing about the policies or issues to Obamacare… this hearing is about religious freedom."

Republican Representative Ann Marie Buerkle of New York, who was the only female Republican lawmaker at the hearing, agreed with Issa, Politico reported.

"I really find it so objectionable that my colleagues on the other side of the aisle would characterize this as something so narrow as being about contraception," she said. "This is a fundamental assault on one's conscience."

But Cumnings disagreed. "This committee commits a massive injustice by trying to pretend that the views of millions of women across this country are meaningless, or worthless, or irrelevant to this debate," he said.

Fluke later spoke to reporters in a hallway outside the hearing, Politico reported. (You can read her full testimony here.)

"It's striking that the chairman would say that the reason I cannot speak is that I'm not qualified to speak on the matter," Fluke said, telling reporters about a friend who had lost an ovary to an illness that could have been treated with contraceptives that she was not allowed to access. "I feel that the women this affects are the most qualified to speak on this matter."

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