- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 13, 2000

Congressional leaders reprimanded the District of Columbia Council yesterday over its vote requiring health insurers to pay for contraceptives.
Rep. Ernest Istook, Oklahoma Republican, criticized the council's discussions as involving "bigotry" during a House appropriations subcommittee hearing on the District's budget.
"There is so much buzz here in the Capitol about it," Mr. Istook said. "I think that D.C. Council in the eyes of Congress and the nation damaged itself immensely.
"The failure of others to speak up or at least disassociate themselves … from the bigotry that was expressed is a great disappointment," Mr. Istook said.
Under the measure, all health insurance plans that cover prescription drugs will have to pay for birth-control pills and other devices defined as contraceptives that are available by prescription. The District's proposal needs congressional approval.
Mr. Istook, a Mormon, said the discussion became a forum for bashing religion, and Catholicism in particular.
Council Chairman Linda W. Cropp, at-large Democrat, defended the council as a whole, downplaying the words as coming from just one member during heated debate.
Council member Jim Graham spoke defiantly about the influence of religion in Tuesday's debate.
"I am very concerned about having religious principles impact public health policy," Mr. Graham said Tuesday. "Are we going to say we are going to defer to Rome, in terms of our views?"
Rep. Thomas M. Davis III, Virginia Republican and chairman of the House Government Reform subcommittee on the District, said the House will amend the contraceptive legislation rather than pass it whole. He said the sentiment came from Democrats as well as Republicans.
"There is no way this ordinance is going to fly on Capitol Hill in its current form," said Mr. Davis, a Christian Scientist. "I think the city has overstepped its bounds."
Mrs. Cropp took exception to negative characterizations and stood staunchly in support of the council's process and tried to clear up "misperceptions."
"It is a disservice to the council of the District of Columbia to label the council as … bashing any one particular religion," Mrs. Cropp said. "The council debated a very controversial issue."
Mrs. Cropp said the vote came after more than three hours of debate on the issue an issue she insisted was about women's health. She said the discussion was briefly turned by one member of the council onto religion.
"Passions are running high. It's a very emotionally charged debate, which happens in every democracy," said Mayor Anthony A. Williams, backing up Mrs. Cropp. Both are Catholics.
Mr. Istook said he was sensitive to how the words of a few can tar a legislative body, but members of the Catholic community were outraged by the council's rhetoric.
"Religious viewpoints should be respected, not condemned. They are a valid basis for people's opinions," Mr. Istook said.
The Archdiocese of Washington condemned the remarks and said anti-Catholicism at the debate went beyond Mr. Graham.
"The Archdiocese of Washington was deeply offended by the bigoted comments of … four [council] members," said William Lori, auxiliary bishop for the archdiocese, which strongly criticized the bill. "We found it to be a prolonged attack on the Catholic Church."
Bishop Lori would name no specific council members nor say whether the archdiocese would lobby Congress to kill the bill.
Before the final unanimous vote Tuesday, council members tried to add a "conscience clause" that would exempt religious institutions. That provision was initially in the bill introduced by Charlene Drew Jarvis, Ward 4 Democrat.
Nationwide, 13 states have laws on the books requiring private insurers to provide coverage of all prescription birth-control methods approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
All but four Vermont, New Hampshire, Georgia and Iowa have a "conscience clause" to exempt institutions, employers and providers with religious or moral opposition to contraception.
Maryland passed the first such law in the nation in 1998. Nine other states Vermont, Connecticut, Georgia, California, Hawaii, Maine, Nevada, New Hampshire and North Carolina followed suit last year. Delaware, Iowa and Rhode Island passed such laws this year.
Richard Doerslinger, associate director of policy for the National Conference of Catholic Bishops pro-life office, attributes the trend to lobbying by pro-choice groups.
He charged that those opposing conscience clauses in legislation mandating birth-control coverage are "using every opportunity to embarrass the Catholic Church."
"These groups have been losing the political battle over abortion. So they've seen a need to switch to something more appealing," Mr. Doerslinger said. "So they've had this big push for mandated coverage of contraceptives."
"The idea here is to end diversity and pluralism that's been in place in health care and force the Catholic Church out," he said.
He admits some states enacted laws without conscience language with little fanfare, presumably without the knowledge of local Catholic officials.
He says he found out what happened in those states as he was researching information for his fight against the D.C. bill.
Susan Tew, a spokeswoman for the Alan Guttmacher Institute, the research arm of Planned Parenthood, said the laws followed an American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists report that showed many more insurance companies covered Viagra than contraceptives for women.
Mandatory contraceptive services are opposed by those in the insurance industry.
"Our concern with the mandates no matter how well intentioned is that they ultimately raise the cost of coverage," said Richard Coorsh, Health Insurance Association of America spokesman. "Our own studies show that 20 to 25 percent of the nation's uninsured are without coverage because of the cost."
Joyce Howard Price contributed to this article.

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