Bill limiting contraception, abortion coverage clears committee

Posted May 15, 2013 1:04 p.m. EDT
Updated May 15, 2013 2:01 p.m. EDT

— Virtually any employer in North Carolina could opt to buy insurance plans that do not include contraception coverage under a bill that cleared the House Judiciary A Committee Wednesday.

The same bill bars cities and counties from offering health insurance plans that pay for abortions except in the case of rape, incest or when the life of the mother is at risk.

The measure, sponsored by Rep. Jacqueline Schaffer, R-Mecklenburg, is heading to the floor in advance of the legislature's crossover deadline on Thursday, the point by which bills that don't raise or spend money must pass either the House or Senate. 

If debate in the committee is any indication, the measure could face a tough challenge when it reaches the House floor. At least two Republicans sided with Democrats to try to pull the contraception measure from the bill. 

"To suggest in the 21st century that a woman could be prevented from having access to birth control, even as far to the right as I am, that's going off the cliff," said Rep. Bob Steinburg, R-Chowan. "This is going too far."

Bill changed before committee 

As originally drafted, House Bill 730 dealt mainly with the question of coverage for contraception. 

North Carolina law already allows employers with religious affiliations to offer health plans with no contraception coverage. This bill extends the definition of "religious employer" to "include any employer, whether incorporated or not and whether for-profit or not, that has a religious, moral, or ethical objection to providing such coverage."

The original version of the bill also extended the right to opt out of helping with an abortion procedure to any health care provider, not just doctors and nurses, as is the case under current law. 

A new version of the bill, which had been shown to some conservative groups but not to the general public before it was presented to the committee, added two sections restricting the availability of insurance coverage for abortion. 

One provision says that any health plans created pursuant to the federal Affordable Care Act would not include abortion coverage, despite at least one federal court ruling that such provisions run counter to the law and are therefore unenforceable.

A final section of the bill prohibits cities and counties from offering abortion coverage in their health plans greater than what the state allows in its employee health plan. Currently, the State Health Plan pays for abortion only in cases of rape, incest or when the life of the mother is at stake. 

Large rewrites of bills in committee are not unusual at the legislature, and it is not unusual for bills to move swiftly in advance of key legislative deadlines. But opponents of the measure decried the last-minute additions. 

"We're doing legislation by ambush," said Rep. Larry Hall, D-Durham, the House minority leader.

Bill draws support, opponents

"I think we all can recognize that North Carolinians hold differing views on these issues concerning certain medical treatment and procedures. This bill strives to protect those conscience rights," Schaffer said.

She said the measure was aimed at making sure nobody was forced to pay for or participate in a procedure to which they objected.

The bill has drawn support from conservative groups, particularly those opposed to abortion.

"This is a matter of religious freedom for these business owners. It is not a matter of discrimination against women," said Tami Fitzgerald, director of the North Carolina Values Coalition, a group that helped push through the amendment to the state constitution banning gay marriage. "Women are free to pay for their own contraception if they want to, but their employers should not be compelled to pay for it."

"This bill has the potential to cause great harm," said Dr. Rebecca Mercier of Chapel Hill, pointing out that contraceptive medications have uses outside of preventing pregnancy.

"This bill is based on some fiction that contraception is controversial in this country and morally ambiguous. It is not. It is an essential pillar of women's health care here and throughout the world," she said.

Women organized by Planned Parenthood of Central North Carolina dressed in 1950s- and 1960s-era clothing to attend the meeting, making the point they believed lawmakers were returning health care coverage to a 1950s sensibility. 

Committee discussion was heated

"There is probably nobody in this room that is any more pro-life than I am," Steinburg said. "But I've got to tell you, I've got a real problem with this bill as is."

The conservative Republican told committee members that his wife had benefited from taking contraceptive medication for a condition unrelated to preventing pregnancy.

Also, he said, the state should not be getting in the way of coverage that helps prevent unplanned pregnancies, which often lead to more strain on state health care resources such as Medicaid. 

Rep. Deborah Ross, D-Wake, offered an amendment to pull the contraception provision from the bill. 

"It's simply not good policy," she said, adding that preventing contraception coverage might lead more women to seek abortions. 

Schaffer insisted the bill doesn't make much of a change to current law.

"We're not attempting to change the law," she said, pointing out that there are already health plans that allow some employers to opt out of contraception coverage. "We're attempting to extend the conscience rights of religious employers."

That drew a rebuke from Rep. Alma Adams, D-Guilford, who said the bill obviously changed the law because it would put more women in situations where they would not be able to obtain birth control.

"More women are going to be denied," she said.

The amendment failed on a 7-7 vote, with Steinburg and Rep. Jon Hardister, R-Guilford, bucking their fellow Republicans to vote for it. 

On the final committee vote, the measure passed 8-6, with Hardister raising his hand to support passage. It will next go to the House floor, likely late Wednesday.