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Republican Sen. Scott Brown and his main challenger, Democrat Elizabeth Warren, released dueling radio ads Thursday that outline their positions on the controversy over whether religious-affiliated groups providing health plans must cover contraception.
The controversy stems from President Obama's health care overhaul. It required all insurers to provide free prescription contraception. When Catholic leaders balked, Obama compromised. He said in the case of religious-affiliated groups, the insurance providers would subsidize free birth control.
Brown responded by co-sponsoring an amendment written by Republican U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt and dubbed the conscience exemption. The amendment would allow all employers — not just religious ones — to deny medical coverage based on moral objections. Brown explains his support in his radio spot.
"I believe it's possible to provide people with access to the health care they want, while at the same time protecting the rights of Americans to follow their religious beliefs. For me, the conscience exemption is a matter of fundamental fairness," Brown says.
At the same time, Warren put out her own radio spot. She never mentions Brown by name, but she does reference the amendment he co-sponsored.
"Now, the Senate is about to vote on a new law, proposed by Republicans, that allows your employer or insurance company to claim a vague moral conviction to deny you contraception or any health care coverage they want," Warren says.
Warren says Brown's amendment threatens women's access to contraception, mammograms and maternity care.
These divergent positions are giving voters an opportunity to compare Brown and Warren on a concrete issue.
Evelyn Atkinson says she considered Brown a decent senator until he co-sponsored this amendment. The Harvard law student protested Brown's amendment outside the senator's office in Boston Thursday.
"The Blunt amendment goes beyond religious preference," Atkinson says. "It's any sort of ideological conviction, any moral conviction. And that's big enough to drive a truck through. You can imagine an employer taking away all sorts of rights, not just reproductive rights. I think the main point for me is that no one should be able to tell a woman what she can do with her body."
But Anne Fox, president of Massachusetts Citizens for Life, says the amendment is necessary because it upholds the First Amendment rights of of religious-affiliated employers.
"The right to practice one's religion, which would include one's moral imperative, is supposed to be guaranteed by the First Amendment," Fox says.
Political observers disagree about how Brown and Warren's positions will resonate with voters. It's especially risky for Brown, who has worked hard to cultivate an identity as an independent. Now he's spearheading a partisan push on a highly charged social issue.
Maurice Cunningham, of the University of Massachusetts Boston's political science department, sees it as an overture to Catholic voters, but he's not sure it will work.
"I really don't see it getting him a lot of votes among Catholics. The most conservative Catholics, yes, but it's not a terribly conservative Catholic electorate," Cunningham says. "It doesn't take its cues from the bishops anymore. I think he's been successful in the past with more subtle appeals to Catholics... but I don't see this one as a winning issue for him. And I think embracing national Republicans for him is always a problem."
However, others think voters in this state are sensitive to any infringement on the right of Catholic institutions to make their own rules. Boston College professor Marc Landy points out that Catholics here were offended when the state, citing anti-discrimination laws, said Catholic charities must accept same-sex couples as adoptive parents*.
"Where this could play is among independents... the fact that they're independents is because they're somewhat ambivalent between the positions of the two parties," Landy says. "I think many of them might say, 'Maybe it's not what I think about contraception, but we have freedom to differ in this country.' "
The Brown and Warren debate over covering contraception reflects a controversy playing out around the country. Seven states, including Florida, Texas and Michigan, have asked a federal judge to block the Obama mandate requiring birth control coverage for employees of religious affiliated institutions.
Clarification: The broadcast version of this story stated that Catholic charities "lost the right" to run adoption services because they didn't permit same-sex couples to adopt. They decided not to run the services.
This program aired on February 24, 2012.
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