WASHINGTON -- Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who in the past has broken with the Republican Party on women's rights issues, is among those fighting the president's stand that all women should get insurance coverage for free birth control.
Murkowski joined other Republicans on Thursday in supporting a broad measure to allow employers and insurers to deny health care services if the companies have religious or moral objections to them. The Senate rejected the proposal, made by Missouri Republican Sen. Roy Blunt, in a 51 to 48 vote, largely along party lines.
It is a delicate spot for Murkowski to be in. She has sided with Democrats in the past on women's issues, and last year was one of the few Republicans in the Senate to speak out in favor of Planned Parenthood. Murkowski was elected with the help of independents and Democrats after losing the 2010 Republican primary, waging the first successful write-in campaign for the U.S. Senate in more than 50 years.
Murkowski also is Catholic. The Catholic Church, including the archbishop in Anchorage, is leading the fight against Obama's requirement that insurers must provide coverage of contraception even for employees of religiously affiliated institutions, such as hospitals or universities. Alaska Democratic Sen. Mark Begich, also Catholic, supports Obama's approach in what has become an election year culture war.
The Alaska Democratic Party said in a statement after the vote that Murkowski "betrays women" and that she voted for a measure that would have allowed employers the option to deny insurance coverage not just for birth control, but for everything from mammograms to maternity care. Washington Democratic Sen. Patty Murray said Republicans are "waging war" against women.
Murkowski said in a Thursday interview that she struggled with the issue.
"I've got some real conflict with this thing. Because I have taken a stand in support of women's health care rights," she said. "To be placed in a position where you are seemingly either for women's health care or you are for religion, I mean what kind of a choice is this."
Murkowski said the effort became politicized and was meant just to provide a "conscience clause" missing in the federal 2010 health care overhaul that mandated insurance coverage. The law does allow churches themselves to deny insurance coverage to their own employees based on religious beliefs. But their affiliated institutions, such as Providence Hospital in Anchorage, do not have the right to deny such coverage.
Murkowski argued the Republican proposal would have just returned the situation to what it was before the 2010 bill mandated insurance coverage.
"There was nothing back then that would compel an employer to go against their religious beliefs or strongly held moral convictions. I guess it begs the question, back in 2009 were we in a situation where something like this would have worked to deny immunizations or flu vaccines? We didn't see it play out then...that argument doesn't hold up."
Begich joined other Democratic senators Thursday to defeat the Republican proposal.
"It allows employers to deny health care coverage for any moral objection. This means that not only could women's contraceptive coverage be denied, but also basics like child immunizations, flu shots, mammograms and prenatal care," Begich said in a statement after the vote.
Murkowski wasn't eager to take on the battle over birth control Thursday. She expressed frustration that the Senate was embroiled in this issue at a time of high unemployment and gas prices.
She did write a letter recently to the Catholic Anchor, the official newspaper of the Anchorage archdiocese, complaining about the birth control rule.
"Unfortunately, the Obama administration unilaterally determined that religious hospitals, charities and schools will be required to go against their deeply-held -- and constitutionally-protected -- beliefs when offering health care services to current employees," Murkowski wrote.
The Obama administration rule includes coverage of sterilization procedures and the so-called morning-after pill, to which the Catholic Church especially objects. Obama spokesman Jay Carney has said it's vital for women no matter where they work to have access to free preventative care, including birth control measures.
Anchorage Archbishop Roger Schwietz wrote a letter to parish leaders in February saying Catholic charities, hospitals and colleges will be treated as "second class citizens," and forced to pay for coverage that violates their religious convictions.
The Catholic Church is vowing to press on with the fight even after Thursday's defeat in the Senate.
By SEAN COCKERHAM
Anchorage Daily News