JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- Employers could refuse to provide health insurance coverage for birth control under legislation approved Thursday by the Missouri Senate, while the House passed a separate measure that would permit health care workers to refuse to participate in procedures that violate their ethical or religious beliefs.
Supporters of the Senate bill said business owners should not have to pay for medication or medical procedures they find morally objectionable. House leaders said their legislation would protect the rights of health care workers.
The Senate measure, sponsored by Sen. John Lamping, would allow employers to deny coverage unless a worker has a medical need for birth control. Sterilization treatments would only be covered if they were medically necessary or if a person elects to be sterilized so that he or she wouldn't pass on a genetic disease to their children.
Lamping, R-Ladue, said his bill is a response to President Barack Obama's policy requiring insurance companies to cover the costs of providing birth control at no additional cost to women working at religious-affiliated institutions such as hospitals and colleges.
Sen. Jane Cunningham, who spoke in support of Lamping's bill, said the federal rule amounts to an attack on religious freedom because it forces employers to pay for coverage of medical treatments that they find morally objectionable.
"I don't think it's a women's issue at all and I'm a woman," said Cunningham, R-Chesterfield. "I see it as a religious issue, which of course, it is. That's the crux of this thing: Paying for something that is against your First Amendment rights."
But some Democrats said they think the intent of the bill is to make it harder for women to obtain birth control by potentially forcing them to pay the full cost of it out-of-pocket.
Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal said she thinks the measure would allow employers to dictate an employee's medical decisions, especially among women who are not able to afford birth control medications.
"This bill is about having the right to protect our own bodies, it has everything to do with that," said Chappelle-Nadal, D-University City.
"I want to have the capacity to be covered by my insurance forever, for whatever I need."
In the House, lawmakers considered legislation affecting Missouri's health care system. That measure would prohibit discrimination or punishment against doctors, nurses and other health care workers who refuse to participate in procedures and research that violate their religious or ethical beliefs. That could include abortions, contraception or embryonic stem-cell research.
Health care institutions also would not be required to perform medical procedures or research that violates their beliefs.
House Majority Leader Tim Jones, who is sponsoring the legislation, said he started working on the issue after hearing reports that some workers in other states have faced disciplinary action for refusing to be involved in some procedures. He said his focus is on protecting workers.
"This bill is not designed to be a sword -- it is only a shield for the worker," said Jones, R-Eureka.
Several House Democrats said the legislation seemed particularly focused on women's health care issues.
"It could delay people from getting the health care they need," said Rep. Margo McNeil, D-Florissant. "It's outrageous. It's really an attack on women, and their ability to control their bodies."
Senators approved the birth control measure 26-5, and the House passed its health care workers legislation 113-41. The bills now swamp chambers.