By Elise Viebeck - 05/18/12 04:29 PM EDT
Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Kathleen Sebelius didn’t mention the controversy over the administration’s contraception mandate during a Friday commencement speech at Georgetown University.
Sebelius, whose visit to the Jesuit school had prompted protests and complaints because of the contraception issue, gave a largely non-political speech that encouraged graduates of Georgetown’s School of Public Policy to help move forward controversial disputes.
The contraception mandate requires employers to include coverage for birth control in their health insurance plans without requiring a co-pay by employees. Catholic groups have argued this violates the religious freedom of individuals who oppose birth control or consider some methods tantamount to abortion.
Sebelius noted in her speech that public policy debates can be contentious and the conversations over difficult issues “can be painful.”
“But this is a strength of our country, not a weakness,” said Sebelius. “In some countries around the world, it is much easier to make policy,” she said. “The leader delivers an edict and it goes into effect. There’s no debate, no press, no criticism, no second guessing.”
Critics of the contraception mandate slammed Sebelius, herself a Catholic, for upholding the mandate, and were angry when she was elected by Georgetown students as a graduation speaker.
An online petition objecting to her visit to the university had 37,800 signatures on Thursday.
About 15 representatives from the Pennsylvania-based American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property congregated in protest outside of Georgetown's gates, far from where Sebelius was speaking.
Among them were two bagpipers in full garb, playing graduation processional tunes. Others were holding signs saying "Obamacare mandate persecutes Catholics" and "Georgetown honors pro-abortion Sebelius — we protest."
More than 90 Georgetown Public Policy students dismissed the uproar this week in a letter to Georgetown University President John J. DeGioia, calling Sebelius an “ideal speaker.”
“Secretary Sebelius was chosen through a process devoid of political considerations or partisan ideology,” they wrote.
Sebelius called her work implementing the bill, which could be struck down by the Supreme Court this summer, an “extraordinary opportunity” to ensure that “all Americans have access to affordable health coverage.”
The high court is expected to issue its decision by the end of next month on the law, which has split the country and served as a major rallying point for critics of the president.
On Friday, Sebelius referred to the tumult of the 1960s and appealed to the audience to remember former President Kennedy's call for a country “where no religious body seeks to impose its will … upon the general populace” and where “an act against one church is … an act against us all.”
Sebelius described herself as an “accidental feminist” who learned girls can do anything “by attending an all-girls school where we had to do everything.”
She also expressed a fondness for Georgetown, where her husband and son attended.
“In my family, Hoya Saxa comes second only to Rock Chalk Jayhawk,” said Seblius, the former governor of Kansas.
—This story was posted at 11:15 and updated at 12:29 p.m.