By Sam Baker and Mike Lillis - 02/16/12 06:25 PM EST
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) slammed Republicans for holding a nearly all-male hearing Thursday about the White House’s birth-control mandate while Democratic women on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee staged a walk-out.
While a second panel on the issue of the mandate and religious freedom included two women, both opposed to a mandate in the healthcare law requiring birth control to be included in insurance plans, it was images of the first all-male panel that spread like wildfire through Twitter and liberal blogs.
"Imagine they're having a panel on women's health, and they don't have any women on the panel – duh!" Pelosi said during a press briefing in the Capitol. "What is it that men don't understand about women's health and how central the issue of family planning is to that?”
The committee chairman's office was quick to strike back, saying Pelosi "is either ill informed or arrogantly dismissive of women who don’t share her views."
"Today’s hearing does in fact include two women, Dr. Allison Garrett of Oklahoma Christian University and Dr. Laura Champion of Calvin College Health Services,” a spokeswomen for Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), Becca Watkins, said in an email, referring to the two witnesses opposed to the administration mandate.
The hearing comes nearly a week after the White House retreated from its initial mandate requiring employer healthcare plans, including for organizations affiliated with churches such as Catholic schools and hospitals, to include contraception coverage without a co-pay for employees. The White House shifted on Friday and announced such employers would not have to include the coverage themselves, though their employees would have to be able to get birth control through the insurer providing the contraception coverage at cost.
The shift was enough to win over some Catholic groups, but many Republicans and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops have protested the new rule as one that continues to violate religious freedom.
Democrats, however, think the White House shift will make the debate more about contraception than religious freedom.
Thursday's hearing was titled "Lines Crossed: Separation of Church and State. Has the Obama adminsitration trampled on freedom of religion and freedom of conscience?"
But it quickly became a debate over birth control, and who should be at the forefront of teh debate. Democrats were ready for a public relations blitz when the all-male Oversight panel on Thursday began. The Democratic women on the panel walked out of a hearing on the contraception policy after Issa refused to allow testimony from Sandra Flake, a Georgetown University law student who supports the administration’s policy.
“Where are the women?” Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards said in a statement. “How can Congress hold a hearing about birth control and not let any women speak?”
Democrats used the hearing to crystallize their argument that the contraception debate is fundamentally about women’s health — not about religious freedom, as Republicans and Catholic leaders have framed it.
"If you need to know more, tune in," Pelosi said. "I may at some point be moved to explain biology to my colleagues."
Asked about Obama's new birth-control mandate, Pelosi, a Catholic, said that contraception should be included in all healthcare plans.
"I want to remove all doubt in anyone's mind where I am on this subject," she said. "This is an issue about women's health, and I believe that women's health should be covered in all of the insurance plans."
Witnesses from Catholic, Protestant and Jewish organizations testified Thursday that even though they don’t have to subsidize employees’ birth-control coverage, the policy remains a threat to their religious freedoms. William Lori, who testified on behalf of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, compared the mandate to a hypothetical law requiring Kosher delis to serve pork.
Republicans in both chambers are pushing legislation to let more employers opt out of federal coverage mandates. Sen. Roy Blunt’s (R-Mo.) proposal would let employers deny coverage for any benefit that contradicts their religious or moral beliefs — an approach Democrats argue would go far beyond birth control.
"Suppose you were a Christian Scientist, and you had an institution, and you said if people work here for us ... they cannot avail themselves of any medical treatments because that's what we believe. Would that work for you?" Pelosi asked. "It's so disrespectful of the contribution that ... women make to the workforce."