Over the last few weeks, Republicans have quietly backed away from the controversial Blunt Amendment and other legislative efforts to allow employers to deny contraception coverage to women. “I think Republicans know that it hasn’t served them well,” Sen. Chuck Schumer told TPM at the time. Apparently, state-level Republicans didn’t get the memo.
Several state legislatures were inspired rather than dissuaded by the contraception debate in Washington, and are considering their own versions of the Blunt Amendment — keeping alive an issue national Republicans thought they were putting to bed. Arizona, New Hampshire, Idaho and Georgia have taken up bills to expand exemptions for contraception coverage. Ohio, Missouri, New Hampshire, Idaho and Wyoming lawmakers are moving symbolic resolutions condemning the administration’s contraception coverage rule.
Lawmakers working on the state bills, like their counterparts in Congress, insist that the measures are about protecting religious liberty, not women’s access to health care. But a new poll from Bloomberg shows that a majority of voters don’t see it that way. The poll, released Wednesday, found 62 percent of Americans believe the debate over religious institutions’ obligations to provide birth control coverage is a matter of women’s health, not religious freedom. Worse, 77 percent do not think birth control to be part of the political debate in the first place.
But thanks to these states, and Arizona in particular, the contraception debate is still raging in the national press, even now that national Republicans have quietly abandoned their effort. The Arizona bill, called HB 2625, mirrors the Blunt Amendment by changing the state’s contraceptive equity law so that any employer can choose not to cover contraception if they reject to it on religious grounds. HB 2625 passed out of the Senate Judiciary Committee Monday and is expected to be voted on by the full Senate this week. After that, it’s up to Gov. Jan Brewer whether she’ll sign it. The bill’s proponents are optimistic it will pass and get the governor’s signature, which would make Arizona the first state to enact a Blunt-style rule.
But the Arizona bill doesn’t stop there — it also includes measures that make it even more provocative, giving more fodder to the press. It would require women who need hormonal contraception for medical reasons to prove that they are not using birth control to prevent pregnancy, which means divulging their private medical history to their employer. That makes it a “serious privacy interest problem,” Anjali Abraham, public policy director at the Arizona ACLU, told TPM.
It gets even worse. Once a woman has forked over her private medical records, they could potentially be used against her. The bill would repeal a longstanding protection that prohibits religious employers from discriminating against employees who obtain contraception outside of their employer’s health care plan.
The bill’s sponsors did not respond to requests for comment.
Deborah Sheasby, legal counsel at the Center for Arizona Policy, who has been working with state legislators to pass HB 2625, says the suggestion that women could be fired is “a misrepresentation” by the bill’s detractors and that women will not be be discriminated against for using contraception.
The center, a conservative organization that pushes social-issues legislation in the state capital, has had the state’s contraception equity law in its sights for years, Sheasby said. The Blunt debate provided just the spark they’d been waiting for.
“It gave us an opportunity, with a lot of people being more aware of the issue because of the national debate, to be able to go ahead and make the change in Arizona law,” Sheasby said. Working with lawmakers and like-minded Catholic organizations, the center helped draft the legislation in February.
Other states pushing similar laws didn’t come up with the idea in isolation either — they too took their cues from Washington. In New Hampshire, House Republicans took an unrelated bill and tacked on an amendment that functioned essentially like the Blunt Amendment, allowing any employer to deny contraception coverage. A bill to the same effect surfaced in Idaho.
In Georgia, state Sen. Josh McKoon realized, in the wake of the national controversy, that Georgia’s own protections for religious organizations were not strong enough. He drafted legislation to expand the exemptions for religious organizations, but unlike the other bills, the exemptions would apply only to religious employers.
The bills are a potential liability for the Republican Party and Republican candidates. In New Hampshire, two Republican candidates for governor, Kevin Smith and Ovide Lamontagne say they would support a narrower version that only applied to religious employers. Neither responded to TPM’s request for comment. In Georgia, all eight women Democratic state senators walked off the Senate floor in protest.
At the national level, the Arizona bill isn’t doing its party’s candidates any favors, either. Rep. Jeff Flake, a frontrunner for the GOP Senate nomination, opposed the Obama administration’s coverage rule but has since backed off taking action against it. He was attacked for his position by a Senate candidate on the Democratic side, Don Bivens, who ran an ad asking, “In the GOP war on women, whose side if Jeff Flake on?” Flake was part of House leadership that moved away from the Blunt Amendment. He told Politico earlier this month, “I think the Senate already took action and we’ve got a lot else on our plate.” On his state’s own measure to mimic Blunt, HB 2625, Flake’s office told TPM he “hasn’t had a chance to review the bill yet.”
Richard Carmona, the leading Democratic candidate for Senate in Arizona, says the bill is nonsensical. “I put my surgeon general’s hat on,” said Carmona, who served in that position under President George W. Bush, and “I would say, ‘this is bad for public health.’”
The contraception debate comes on the heels of a host of other women-related issues on which Democrats feel they have the upper hand. On top of the Komen foundation’s backtrack on Planned Parenthood, fallout over Sandra Fluke and Rush Limbaugh, an invasive ultrasound bill in Virginia, some Republicans are now opposed to the renewal of the Violence Against Women Act in its current form. Democrats see these as part of a larger narrative of the GOP being anti-woman, and Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) even recently “warned her colleagues that the party was at risk of being successfully painted as antiwoman — with potentially grievous political consequences in the fall,” according to the New York Times.
All told, the contraception debate gives Democrats another opening to attack the GOP, and point out that Republicans run for office promising to create jobs, only to invest their energy on social issues once they’re actually in office.
“Is this really what the people want their legislators dealing with now?” asked Carmona. “We have one of the highest foreclosure rates in the [country], people are worried about keeping their homes, people are desperate about getting a job … and we are debating contraception?”
Pema Levy is a News Writer at TPM covering the 2012 election. Before coming to TPM, Pema was an assistant editor at The American Prospect where she wrote about politics and the economy.