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Senate candidates split on birth-control decision

Merkley critical, Wehby supports ruling curbing insurance coverage.


Oregon’s U.S. Senate candidates are split on a Supreme Court decision this week allowing family-owned businesses to deny insurance coverage for some forms of birth control.

The high court, in a 5-4 decision, ruled that a federal requirement for businesses to provide such coverage despite objections from family owners runs afoul of a federal law protecting religious freedom.

Democratic incumbent Jeff Merkley, who supported a requirement for such coverage under state and federal laws, says millions of women will be the losers.

“Women in this country should be able to make their own health care choices. Bosses and CEOs shouldn’t be able to impose their own personal views on their workers’ health care,” he said in a statement after the ruling was issued Monday.

“The Supreme Court decision will make it more difficult for women to make critical personal health choices and shows just how far we still have left to go to ensure total equality for women in the workplace and, unfortunately, even in the doctor’s office.

“Allowing CEOs to control whether or not their workers have contraception coverage is a dangerous precedent.”

The requirement was contained in a regulation implementing the Affordable Care Act, the 2010 law that Merkley voted for and Republican rival Monica Wehby opposes.

Wehby, who is seeking to thwart Merkley’s second-term bid, says the decision isn’t as sweeping as Merkley and other critics describe it.

“As long as every woman still has access to contraception through a third party, she doesn't see a problem,” says Michael Antonopoulos, hew new campaign manager, via Twitter.

“As a doctor, Monica strongly believes that we need to take the politics out of women's medical decisions.”

Wehby, a pediatric neurosurgeon from Portland, is the first woman nominated by Republican voters for a U.S. Senate seat in Oregon.

But Wehby’s stance was assailed during a conference call Wednesday with one of Merkley’s political allies, a Portland obstetrician and gynecologist, and the executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Oregon, all of whom criticized the court’s decision.

Diane Rosenbaum of Portland was speaker pro tem of the Oregon House — and Merkley was speaker — when state lawmakers in 2007 required health insurers to cover contraceptives as part of their prescription drug plans. The law also requires hospitals to furnish emergency contraceptives to women after sexual assaults.

Rosenbaum was the law’s chief author.

“Jeff Merkley stands out as one of our fiercest and most effective advocates and allies,” both then and now, said Rosenbaum, the majority leader of the Oregon Senate. “We have a clear choice between Senator Merkley, who has been a true champion for women’s health care and families, and someone like Monica Wehby who has said she supports this decision.”

Rosenbaum and Michele Stranger Hunter, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Oregon, criticized Wehby not only for her support of Monday’s decision but of two of the justices who voted for it.

Earlier this year, Wehby said in a newspaper interview that she admired Justices Samuel Alito — author of the decision in the Hobby Lobby case — and Antonin Scalia. Both are members of the court’s conservative bloc, and Scalia has made no secret that he would like to reverse the court’s 1973 ruling that legalized abortion in Roe v. Wade.

“She’s been clear that the same justices who came to this misguided ruling are the ones she would confirm to the Supreme Court if she were a member of the U.S. Senate,” Hunter says.

“I think it is absolutely critical that we pay attention to what is behind her words.”

Wehby has said she personally opposes abortion but would not seek to undo its legality. But Hunter says Wehby will toe the Republican Party’s stance against it.

During the conference call, Dr. Elizabeth Newhall, a Portland obstetrician and gynecologist, said she agreed that politics and religion have no role in health care decisions.

But she says the court’s decision, based on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, does just the opposite by letting some business owners impose their beliefs upon their employees if the businesses are not publicly traded corporations.

“Any hurdle placed between a woman and contraception increases the rate of unplanned pregnancies, and with it, the abortion rate,” she says. “With this ruling, the Supreme Court has taken us backwards by increasing gender-based discrimination.”

peterwong@PortlandTribune.com

(503) 385-4899

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