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Virginia political leaders on Tuesday held a debate on the birth control mandate of the Affordable Care Act in the Academic Learning Commons. State Senator John Edwards, D-Roanoke, and Delegate Robert Marshall, R-Manassas, debated issues relating to House Bill 18, a bill introduced in the General Assembly by Marshall that would have allowed insurance companies to choose not to offer birth control coverage.
The bill under discussion mandates that certain measures of the Affordable Care Act interfere with the Free Exercise and Establishment Clauses of the First Amendment. The amendment protects certain “rights of conscience,” the bill states. The bill would have allowed health insurance companies in Virginia to provide two forms of insurance plans, one that offers “contraceptive methods, sterilization procedures or abortifacient drugs or devices,” and one that does not.
Each debater was allowed to make five minutes of opening comments before responding to each other’s claims.
“The requirement here is to place on the individual who has a conscious problem with this the duty to engage in affirmative act, not refrain from something, but to positively do something,” Marshall said.
Marshall used state Supreme Court cases, as well as state and federal laws as examples to support his bill.
“If you want to find birth control, go ahead to Walmart and pay $9 a month … you can go out and buy this if you want, don’t compel me to do it,” Marshall said.
The debaters clearly disagreed about the role of private companies, and the exception given to religious groups in the insurance coverage mandate.
“This applies not (only) to religious groups, this applies across the board to any corporation,” Edwards said.
“What it means is a CEO of a particular company can say, we’re not going to cover it, and that’s a slippery slope. Where do you stop covering something because you don’t agree with it? Whether for religious reasons or whatever reasons … you’re depriving your employees of what everybody has a right to have under the law.”
Student participant and political science senior Chris Bolen asked Marshall if the birth control mandate risks dividing the Republican party, not America as a whole as Marshall claimed during the debate. Marshall responded that the GOP tries to avoid these kinds of issues.
“I was just interested to see what they had to say,” Bolen said. “I enjoyed the fact that we had a healthy debate and I enjoyed hearing both sides.”
Although the bill failed in the General Assembly earlier this month, the issue still remains controversial statewide, according to assistant public policy professor Farrah Graham.
Meredith Harbach, an associate professor at the University of Richmond law school, moderated the night’s debate.
The event was hosted by the First Freedom Center, the Historic Polegreen Church Foundation and VCU’s L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs.