When lawmakers officially convene today at the Missouri Capitol for their annual veto session, debate over a woman’s access to birth control will likely take center stage.
Republican legislative leaders are confident they have enough votes to overturn Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon’s veto of a bill that states no employer or health insurance provider can be compelled to provide coverage for contraception, abortion or sterilization if doing so violates their religious or moral convictions.
Supporters frame the debate as an attempt to protect religious liberty and stop the encroachment of government into private businesses. To its critics, however, the legislation is at best a political ploy aimed at rallying the GOP base during an election year, and at worst an attempt to restrict a woman’s access to birth control.
The bill was a direct response to an Obama administration policy that requires health insurance plans to cover contraception. The policy includes an exemption for religious organizations.
Nixon vetoed the measure, arguing that Missouri law already gives employers the freedom to omit contraceptive coverage in their health plans “if the use or provision of such contraceptives is contrary to the moral, ethical or religious beliefs or tenets of such person or entity.”
The larger concern, Nixon contends, is that the legislation would give insurance companies the power to deny contraception coverage — even if an employee wants it and is willing to pay for it.
“This is a personal, medical decision for a woman and her family, not something that should be dictated by an insurance company,” Nixon said last week.
Supporters of the bill dispute Nixon’s claim. Very few insurance companies operate under an established set of religious or moral beliefs that would allow them refuse to offer contraceptives, said Mike Hoey, executive director of the Missouri Catholic Conference, in a recent op-ed piece.
“It strains the bounds of common sense to believe that the CEO of a major insurance company will wake up one morning and decide to establish a religious mission statement and then proceed to deny contraceptive coverage to willing customers,” Hoey said.
Hoey added that religious liberty is “about more than worshipping God on the Sabbath or holy days, it is about practicing faith on a daily basis, even when we consider what kind of insurance policy to buy.”
But state Rep. Stacey Newman, a Richmond Heights Democrat and chair of the House Progressive Caucus, said the real motivation of the legislation is making it harder for a woman to make medical decisions for herself. Birth control is basic health care, she said, and women should have access to it regardless of where they work.
“This is a roadblock to woman having access to contraception being disguised as an attempt to protect religious liberty,” Newman said. “People who proclaim that they are opposed to abortion are passing legislation making it harder for woman to avoid unwanted pregnancies.”
The bill, however, does not focus solely on women. It also allows employers to refuse to provide health insurance coverage for sterilization procedures, such as a vasectomy or any “elective medical procedure for which the sole purpose is to make an individual incapable of reproduction.”
House Majority Leader Tim Jones, a Eureka Republican, said the main objective is putting a stop to a burdensome federal mandates on private businesses.
“What are we going to mandate employers provide next? Four weeks of vacation every year? Free transportation to work?” Jones said. “I just wonder where the examples would end once you start going down this road.”
During debate over the bill in May, state Rep. Sandy Crawford, a Buffalo Republican who sponsored the legislation, said the goal was to send a message to the federal government that “we don’t like things rammed down our throat.”
Jones said claims that the bill will result in women having less access to birth control are “intellectually dishonest.”
“Nothing in the state or federal constitution says you have a right to contraception,” he said. “If someone wants birth control, there is nothing in this bill that stops them from going out and purchasing it themselves.”
But deciding when to become a parent is one of the most important decisions a person will make, argued Elizabeth Nash, state issues manager for the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive health research organization.
“Making sure the woman, her partner and her family are healthy and ready to become parents is incredibly important,” Nash said. “If we consider pregnancy health care, then we must consider contraception health care as well.”
Current law already protects anyone with a religious or moral objection from being forced to provide or pay for contraception or abortion, said Sen. Jolie Justus, a Kansas City Democrat. Claims that the bill is aimed at protecting religious liberty are “disingenuous,” she said.
“This is just a lame attempt by Republicans to try to make religious liberty an issue when it’s really just partisan politics,” Justus maintained. “They want to gin up support for their base during an election year. The bill is meaningless and a complete waste of time.”
Only six Democrats are needed to join with 104 Republicans to reach the two-thirds majority required for a veto override in the Missouri House. Thirteen Democrats voted in favor of the bill in May.
In the state Senate, where 23 votes are needed for an override, three Democrats joined with 25 Republicans in support of the bill.
Leaders in both legislative chambers are confident the votes are there to overturn the governor’s veto, Jones said.
“There is a strong pro-life contingent on both sides of the aisle,” he noted. “I think we have enough support for an override.”
Supporters of the governor are equally as optimistic, contending that some Republicans in the House have said they will vote to sustain the veto.
Lawmakers expect to finish the veto session in one day, although the Missouri Constitution allows it to continue for up to 10 days.