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Op-Ed: Another Perspective on the Contraception Controversy

The critical health benefits that contraceptives offer women have been obscured by the current debate.

The opportunity for women to obtain birth control through their employer-sponsored health insurance is at the heart of a heated national health policy and religious debate.

Just a few months ago, the Obama administration mandated that all employers, religious and otherwise, pay for this important health insurance benefit. And while most employer-sponsored health insurance plans include this coverage, it is still not a universal, national benefit for all workers. This is particularly true of those employed by certain religious organizations like the Catholic Church and their affiliated institutions: grade schools, universities, hospitals, charities, and churches. The Catholic Church has strongly objected to the President's proposal, saying that paying for female contraception violates its religious teachings. While we can debate this issue for a very long time, the President has offered a thoughtful and appropriate solution.

In President Obama's proposal, he would require that insurance companies pay for the cost of female contraception as a free benefit and that no religious groups' money will be used. This is a commonsense solution that should be acceptable to all parties. Simply put, since the church's objection from the beginning was that paying for birth control violates their beliefs -- and by default condones its use -- then not having to pay for it should address those concerns.

This is not the first time the Catholic Church has raised concerns about providing female contraception. It is also not the first time a reasonable compromise has been reached.

In 2006, when I wrote New Jersey's "Contraceptive Equity" law, it ended a long debate that pitted what I believed was the right of women to access birth control vs. those who believed, and still do, that access to and paying for birth control violates their religious teachings. This law, which is now one of most comprehensive of any state, requires insurance companies licensed in New Jersey to offer coverage for which employers and employees contribute to the cost of female contraception.

The law applies to employee insurance coverage provided by businesses, including hospitals, colleges, and charities --regardless of religious affiliation. The law does include a limited waiver of contraceptive benefits for religious institutions that have primary ownership of a church or grade school, and have bona fide religious objections; a necessary compromise that recognizes the religious liberties enshrined in our Constitution. But no waiver is granted if the prescription is issued for reasons other than contraceptive purposes that would preserve the life and health of the patient.

Unfortunately, these critical health benefits that contraceptives provide for women -- beyond fertility control -- have been lost in this national debate. For millions of women, young and older, female contraception is prescribed to treat conditions ranging from irregular periods, premenstrual syndrome, benign breast disease, to pelvic inflammatory disease, functional cysts, and migraine headaches. These life-saving drugs have also been known to lower the risk of certain ovarian cancers. What has also gone unnoticed in this debate is that many employees of those institutions that object to birth control employ hundreds of thousands of women who practice different faiths than the leaders of that institution. It seems fair to me that their method of worship and personally held beliefs should be considered.

In New Jersey and across the nation we have made incredible progress in providing women with access to critical and affordable health care -- but much more remains to be done. Access to contraceptives is an important part of this puzzle. The President's proposal is an artful compromise that strengthens our nation's healthcare system and preserves religious liberty, but not at the cost of a woman's well-being.

State Sen. Joe Vitale (D-Woodbridge) is chairman of the Senate Health & Human Services Committee.

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