WASHINGTON - The roiling debate over coverage for birth control is fracturing New England Republicans, as some moderates in the GOP - particularly women - say they feel marginalized by the positions taken by Senators Scott Brown of Massachusetts and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire.
The divisions point to the potential dangers for Brown as he seeks reelection in a state that is not as conservative as those represented by fellow GOP senators who are supporting a controversial health care bill in the Senate. The measure, sponsored by Roy Blunt of Missouri, would allow employers and insurers to place limits on what they cover, including birth control, on moral or religious grounds.
Brown and Ayotte are among the 37 cosponsors who say the bill would prevent intrusive federal mandates and protect religious freedoms. But the other two Republican senators from traditionally moderate New England - Maine’s Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins - are not supporting it, calling it overly broad.
Interviews with other moderate Republicans this week revealed that the split within the New England GOP delegation is reflected in the party generally. Some moderate Republican women say they wish more senators would stand up for reproductive health.
“I think they just want us barefoot and pregnant, and I’m disgusted,’’ said Priscilla Lockwood, a New Hampshire state representative from Canterbury. “The atmosphere of the whole Republican Party has been going backwards, and the moderates are lost. The religious argument is bogus, because I think they’re just using that as a political tool.’’
Meredith Warren, a Republican strategist in Andover who serves on the board of the Massachusetts Women’s Political Caucus, said it is a mistake for Republicans to be putting so much focus on social issues when polling shows that the economy is at the top of the public’s concerns.
A moderate when it comes to social issues, Warren said she supports Brown on nearly everything except the Blunt bill and feared his reelection campaign could take a hit.
“This amendment takes it too far,’’ Warren said. “There’s a lot of people in the base they’re playing to with this. But when the discussion becomes focused so much on things like birth control, it muddies the message and makes it harder to convince other independents to come over to the Republican side.’’
At issue is a bill introduced last year by Blunt in response to the federal health care law mandate that coverage of birth control be included in all insurance plans. Blunt’s bill would broaden the conscience protection clause to allow any employer or insurer who has religious or moral objections to a particular health service from covering it. That could mean not only contraception being excluded from coverage, but also in-vitro fertilization, blood transfusions, vaccines, or anything else employers deem a violation of their faith.
Brown released a 3-minute Web video yesterday explaining his support of the measure. “This isn’t a political issue. This is about freedom to practice your religion without government interference,’’ he said in the video.
Brown also has defended his position by saying his Senate predecessor, Edward M. Kennedy, the late Catholic Democrat, supported a “conscience protection’’ for Catholic health care professionals who did not wish to perform abortions or prescribe birth control medications. Unlike the broader Blunt proposal under consideration now, the Kennedy proposal did not apply to health insurance coverage.
The current bill is likely to be voted on after next week’s Senate recess. It received widespread backing by Republicans after a ruling by President Obama that church-affiliated employers such as Catholic hospitals and universities had to provide contraception free as part of employees’ basic health coverage. After an outcry, Obama modified that decision to exempt such organizations as long as insurers provided the coverage. Many conservatives have not been appeased.
Some prominent Republican women in Massachusetts are staying out of the debate. Former acting governor Jane Swift declined to discuss the bill. Former lieutenant governor Kerry Healey, who is a major supporter of Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign, did not respond to requests for comment.
Snowe and Collins also are keeping a low profile on the subject and did not respond to requests for comment. In 2001, they cosponsored a bill that would have prohibited insurance plans from excluding contraceptives from their prescription benefits. In the current debate, they are supporting a bill that is more narrowly tailored and would allow any employer to deny contraception coverage based only on religious objections.
Brown has been forced to navigate birth-control controversies before in Massachusetts. As a state representative in 2002, he supported an amendment that would have broadened the state’s conscience clause to include religious hospitals, universities, and other organizations with similar objections. When that amendment failed, he voted in favor of a bill mandating contraception coverage.
During his 2004 campaign for state Senate, Brown reasserted his support for abortion rights and the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade ruling. But in 2005 he sponsored an amendment that would have allowed hospital staff to turn away rape victims if the staff had religious objections to providing emergency contraception; instead the rape victims would have been referred to another hospital or staff member.
After the Senate rejected his amendment, Brown ultimately voted in favor of a bill to provide timely access to emergency contraception at pharmacies and in hospitals. Brown also voted to override then Governor Romney’s veto.
Some Republican moderates were hesitant to directly criticize Brown but clearly oppose the Blunt amendment.
Nancy L. Johnson, a former Connecticut congresswoman who is now a Washington lobbyist, said contraception should be covered under the same terms as any prescription drugs.
“It’s very important that women have the right to make the decision about whether to use contraception in accordance with their own conscience,’’ Johnson said. “I have many Catholic friends who use contraception, and my goal is to preserve for them, not their employers, the right to make that judgment.’’
Other New Englanders maintain that the issue isn’t birth control, but rather government mandates.
Charles Bass, a GOP congressman from New Hampshire who opposes the health overhaul law, said the debate is the first manifestation of the law that allows the government to decide minimum coverage standards.
“I happen to think contraceptive coverage is important, but that doesn’t mean the federal government should be setting this as a minimum benefit,’’ Bass said. “It’s not about contraceptives for me. It’s about freedom and religious liberty.’’
Sheila Harrington, a state representative from Groton who said she is an antiabortion moderate, said the debate has been clouded by birth-control pills, which she said she and most Catholics do not oppose. What she objects to is coverage of emergency contraception, or the morning-after pill, which some view as a form of abortion.
She called Obama compromise a “thinly veiled attempt to force insurance companies to be responsible for an abortion-inducing drug’’ while making Catholic employers look the other way.Tracy Jan can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeTracyJan