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Sen. Brown/Sen. Kennedy – the Essential Difference

Posted by John McDonough  February 18, 2012 11:15 AM

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Sen. Scott Brown (R-MA) now has invoked the memory of the late Senator Edward Kennedy (D-MA), my former boss, to justify his co-sponsorship of Senator Roy Blunt's (R-MO) legislation to permit any employer or insurance company to deny coverage for any essential or preventive health benefit based on the employer or insurer's religious belief or moral conviction.

In defending his actions, Brown references Senator Kennedy's 1995 health reform legislation which would have ensured that a "health professional or a health facility may not be required to provide an item or service under a certified health plan if the professional or facility objects to doing so on the basis of a religious belief or moral conviction."

What's the difference between Brown and Kennedy's positions?

While Ted Kennedy was pro-choice in all his policy positions, he really did oppose abortion as a personal matter. Still, he would not permit his own beliefs to dictate the decision made by any individuals. Similarly, he felt that individual physicians, nurses and facilities who delivered medical services should not be compelled to provide services against their religious or moral beliefs. And still, he adamantly protected the right of every individual to get the medical care they wanted for themselves.

By contrast, Scott Brown's legislation would permit any employer and health insurer to deny coverage for any essential or preventive medical service to which they morally object, thus creating a real economic barrier for many individual workers, as well as a host of new ways for employers and health insurers to skirt the consumer protections in the Affordable Care Act. Brown wants to allow powerful employers and insurers to dictate their choices and preferences to individuals.

That is where Brown and Kennedy are worlds apart.

Kennedy's priority always was consistent: protecting the rights of the individual. Brown's priority is the protection of the prerogatives of powerful institutions against the individual.

Given his instinctive avoidance of divisive clashes, how did Brown get himself into this mess? He stepped into it only days before President Obama announced a change in his proposed policy that has satisfied objections raised by numerous Catholics, including the Catholic Health Association. Obama's new policy shifted the debate's focus from religious freedom to contraception and women's health. The Blunt-Brown proposal goes even further, allowing the denial of a host of essential and preventive benefits to individuals.

As this happens, across the nation, Catholic clerics are coming out publicly and forthrightly for the first time in decades against contraception -- see this New York Times piece today about a Rhode Island priest's campaign against birth control. Apparently the priest in question does not know what one woman shared this week on Andrew Sullivan's blog, The Dish:

As a woman who has suffered from a painful pelvic condition, endometriosis, I want to point out that contraceptives are used for more than pregnancy prevention.  For many women, contraceptives are the first type of treatment that doctors will prescribe to women who have very painful pelvic conditions such as cysts, PCOS and endometriosis.  For many women, taking birth control can help to minimize the pain and keep the condition from worsening. Restricting access to birth control also indirectly subjects women to painful medical conditions and increases the possibility of having to intervene surgically.

This debate signals a profound shift in the political landscape of women's health, and it's a lose-lose for the Catholic hierarchy and for the Republicans who have joined their side, including Scott Brown.

(Disclosure: I have contributed to the campaign of Elizabeth Warren for US Senate.)

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

John E. McDonough is a professor of practice at the Harvard School of Public Health. He is the author of the book “Inside National Health Reform”, published in 2011 by More »


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