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Missouri legislator challenges state insurance coverage for contraception, sterilization

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 16, 2013: State Rep. Paul Wieland could be starting a trend in Missouri with his suit that challenges the Missouri government’s new group insurance coverage that covers sterilization and contraceptives, including some birth-control drugs or devices that he says induce abortion.

In the suit, Wieland and his lawyers contend that such coverage is not “health care or a means of providing for the well being of persons. Rather, plaintiffs believe contraceptives, sterilization, and abortifacients involve gravely immoral practices and that abortion in particular involves the intentional destruction of innocent human life.”

The suit raises the same legal issues swirling around a state law that the Missouri General Assembly attempted to enact in 2012 – over Gov. Jay Nixon’s veto – that allowed employers to offer insurance coverage excluding contraception or sterilization. (The state already has a law allowing exemptions from abortion coverage.)

So far, judges have ruled against the state law, using the same grounds – that the federal law is supreme. State House Speaker Tim Jones, R-Eureka, among the most outspoken defenders of the state law, says it’s wrong to require companies or employees to buy into coverage they find immoral.

The question is whether more like-minded Missouri legislators who receive state insurance coverage follow Wieland's lead and go to court.

Wieland said in an interview late Thursday that he had just begun discussing the issue with fellow House members while all of them are esconced at the Westin hotel downtown for the closed-door caucus this weekend.

He had yet to determine if others might file similar suits.

But he's been stunned by all the press attention,. "It's surprising to me that it's gone so national,'' Wieland said. "I'm getting emails from all over the country."

Those emails have been split 50-50 between supporters and opponents, he added. "It's been a mixed bag."

Claims religious objections

Wieland, R-Imperial, says he was notified in July by the state insurance entity – the Missouri Consolidated Health Care Plan -- that as of Aug. 1, the insurance program would cover contraception and sterilization. Plan representatives wrote in a letter that the federal Affordable Care Act required the coverage.

Earlier, Wieland was among those able to receive state insurance coverage excluding sterilization or contraceptives.

Although the state doesn’t cover abortions (a long-standing law contains that exemption), Wieland and allies such as Missouri Right to Life contend that some contraceptives – including IUDs and emergency contraceptives such as “Plan B’’ taken after intercourse – provide early abortions. Medical experts say that’s not the case and that such contraception simply prevents a fertilized egg from implanting in a woman’s uterus.

In any event, Wieland contends in his suit that the federal coverage requirement forces him and his family either to:

  • “(a) violate their sincerely held religious opposition to contraceptives, sterilization and abortifacients by paying to make such services available to their three daughters,
  • “(b) forfeit the valuable benefit of employer-sponsored health insurance for themselves and their daughters and purchase more expensive satisfactory coverage on the open market, if such coverage even exists, or
  • “(c) forgo health insurance for their daughters altogether. The act also unconstitutionally interferes with the plaintiffs’ parental rights and fundamental right to family integrity.”

Wieland’s suit notes that the federal government has exempted some group plans from various mandates but says “There is, however, no way for individual employees to opt out of coverage based upon their sincerely held religious beliefs regarding contraceptives, sterilization and abortifacients.”
Chicago law firm representing legislator

Wieland is assisted by the Thomas More Society, a Chicago-based law firm that says it “exists to restore respect in law for life, marriage, and religious liberty.”

Timothy Belz, a special counsel with the firm, said in a statement,  "The particulars of Obamacare are now forcing our clients to participate in something they consider an intrinsic evil. The Wielands fervently believe abortifacients and abortion on demand do not constitute medicine or health care. Their religious faith defines abortion as the intentional destruction of innocent human life, and the Wielands believe that it is gravely immoral."

Belz said that the suit’s legal premise is that “the intention of the founding fathers was to protect people from government imposition into their religious convictions. Instead, the federal government is now coercing our clients into abandoning their religious views and interfering with these parents' right to raise their daughters within their Catholic principles."

The lawsuit’s defendents include U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew, and U.S. Department of Labor Secretary Seth D. Harris.

Missouri judges have ruled against similar suits

The suit is among several filed in Missouri and aimed at the coverage mandate for sterilization and contraception. Between November 2012 and January, three businesses in the state got temporary orders barring enforcement of the coverage mandate.

Since then, most judicial rulings have gone against the Missouri firms, although judicial rulings in other states have been mixed.

Wieland’s suit also could become an issue in his contest for the state Senate in 2014. The best-known Democratic contender is Jeff Roorda, D-Barnhart.

Wieland has posted a release about his suit on his campaign website.

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.

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