THEIR WORDS: Elected officials, congressional hopefuls weigh in on birth control mandate

For Friday’s story on the ongoing debate over federal contraception mandates, The Forum asked each member of Congress in North Dakota and west-central Minnesota, as well as all candidates in North Dakota’s federal races, to answer the following three questions earlier this week.

  • What is your position on the federal mandate requiring health insurance companies to provide women free access to birth control services?
  • In your opinion, does this requirement infringe on religious liberties? Why or why not?
  • Legislation in both the House and the Senate aims to extend the White House’s proposed exemptions for religious institutions. If in Congress now, how would you vote on the matter and why?

Here are there complete, unedited responses (listed first by seniority of each state’s delegation and then by alphabetical order for each applicable race):



Kent Conrad

Ensuring access to preventive health services saves lives and can help reduce health care costs.  At the same time, we need to respect deeply held religious beliefs.  Unfortunately, the Administration’s original proposal did not get that balance right.  I’m pleased that the Administration recognized its mistake and modified its proposal.  This latest proposal where insurers bear the burden of offering birth control coverage to women is a step in the right direction that has the support of the Catholic Health Association.

Many religious leaders continue to have concerns with the revised policy, and it is my hope the Administration will continue to seek a better balance on this issue.

The Senate is expected to vote this week on S. 1468 — the Respect for Rights of Conscience Act of 2011, as an amendment to the Senate surface transportation bill. I have serious concerns about this bill because it would allow a health plan or employer to decline coverage of any specific item or service based on any religious or moral objection of the sponsor, issuer, purchaser, or beneficiary, while still meeting the essential benefits requirements.

This goes far beyond addressing the legitimate concerns of the religious community in regard to contraception and could seriously jeopardize access to necessary care and services for millions of beneficiaries. For example, under this bill an employer could deny coverage for Type 2 Diabetes because of an objection to a perceived unhealthy lifestyle, deny vaccines to children based on a moral objection to immunizations, or deny coverage for mental health services based on a moral conviction that psychiatric conditions should be treated with prayer rather than medical intervention.  Allowing employers that kind of authority to cut benefits and services would completely undermine our insurance system and have significant consequences for individuals’ health.


Hoeven has specifically co-sponsored Senate bill 2043, a similar piece of legislation to the Blunt Amendment. He detailed his support for the bill in a column published Feb. 10 in The Forum, a position he maintains, his staff said this week.

REP. RICK BERG, R-N.D. (also running for U.S. Senate in 2012)

Rick Berg

Berg has been strongly opposed to the contraception mandates, speaking out previously on the requirements.

“This is yet another example of the unprecedented overreach found in President Obama’s health care law,” Berg stated. “As the husband of a family practice doctor, I am strongly opposed to the Obama administration standing between the healthcare decisions of patients and their doctors, and in this case, extending its overreach into faith-based organizations’ decisions as well.  North Dakotans did not want the President’s healthcare overhaul to begin with.  The more we learn about it, the worse it is, and I will continue fighting to repeal it.” (02/07/12)

“President Obama fails to understand that religious liberty is not an accommodation—it’s a right,” Berg stated. “The Obama administration’s political mandate violates religious freedoms and serves as yet another example of why President Obama’s health care law needs to be repealed.  North Dakotans did not want the President’s health care overhaul to begin with, and I will continue to fight to repeal both the law itself and the egregious mandates found in it.” (02/10/12)


“No church or other house of worship should be required to provide services that may be against their beliefs, and that is why they are exempt from the Administration ruling. I know that some colleges, hospitals, and charities are concerned with how the ruling impacts them, and I will continue to work during the next year to implement this in a way that addresses their concerns while still protecting women’s health.”


“We need to safeguard women’s access to essential health care. Yet recently we’ve seen an all-out attack on women’s right to protect their health by using contraceptives—this is something that almost all American women in this country use at some point in their lives. I applaud the President for finding a solution that protects religious freedoms while also giving women the right to choose what’s best for them.”

(Franken also spoke on the Senate floor in opposition to the Blunt Amendment.)


“As a pro-life Member of Congress, I am a strong supporter of protecting conscience rights.  I have joined many of my colleagues in sending a letter to Secretary Sebelius, and have cosponsored H.R. 1179, the Respect for Rights of Conscience Act.  I believe that federal policy should respect the conscience rights of those who, for moral or religious reasons, oppose abortion.”


RICK BERG, Republican candidate for U.S. Senate

See above responses.

HEIDI HEITKAMP, Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate

Heidi Heitkamp

“Health insurance should cover preventive health care for women, including contraception.

The final compromise does not require religious institutions to pay for contraception.  Like many North Dakotans, I was troubled by the process, but the issue has been settled in a way does not require religious institutions to pay for contraception. It’s disturbing that rather than coming together, some Washington politicians are trying to exploit this issue for political gain rather than focusing on solving a real problem.

I would need to see the specifics of any piece of legislation before it comes to a vote.  However, I have concerns with both (House and Senate) bills as they stand today.
They go far beyond exemptions for religious institutions, which many North Dakotans consider reasonable.  Either of these bills, if passed, would allow any employer, for almost any reason, to take away preventative care of all kinds that women already have and rely on. I think most North Dakotans want to keep their health coverage and want their bosses to stay out of their private health care decisions — just as they want the government to give an exemption to churches.”

DUANE SAND, Republican candidate for U.S. Senate

Duane Sand

“First and foremost, this is an issue that should not be consuming the energy of the federal government. This is a personal issue that the federal government really has no business involving itself. The primary reason healthcare is so expensive is because of the mandates the state and federal government place on health insurance providers.   This edict from the federal government once again shows that cost was never really a factor in the healthcare reform discussion. We need to get government out of healthcare, not empower it to be more involved.

The entire concept behind ObamaCare infringes on individual liberty, so yes, absolutely the decision by the federal government to interject itself into the discussion of what should and should not be paid for by insurance companies infringes on religious liberties.

The greater problem is the federal government’s over reach into all aspects of our lives. Until we repeal ObamaCare and end push towards more federal control of healthcare we will continue to see these issues that are nothing more than distractions.”

KEVIN CRAMER, Republican candidate for U.S. House

Kevin Cramer

“It is an insult to the constitution and the conscience. The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA), commonly referred to as “Obamacare,” and its mandate forcing individuals to purchase a good solely on the basis of their being alive is inherently unconstitutional and should be repealed in its entirety. My opposition to Obamacare by extension reaches to this particular mandate. I do not believe it is the role of the federal government to dictate what types of employment benefits private employers must provide – or not provide – for their employees. The decision to purchase healthcare insurance – and what that insurance should include – is a decision best left to individuals and businesses without government interference.

President Obama’s ruling that all employers must provide insurance coverage that includes free birth control coverage does indeed infringe upon the civil and religious freedoms guaranteed to all American citizens in the Bill of Rights. Our religious institutions must be free to operate according to the dictates of their conscience and doctrines, or we run the risk of the federal government determining the standard of what is and is not acceptable religion. The First Amendment states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion” … If we allow the federal government to force religious employers to purchase something that violates their religious convictions – and the US Council of Catholic Bishops along with other religious organizations have clearly shown that this does – will infringements on freedom of speech and the press follow? It is a very slippery slope to start down.

The government cannot force a religious organization – whether it is a church, a synagogue, a school or a hospital – to purchase items or participate in plans that violate their principles. There are Catholic hospitals across the country which refuse to offer abortion services, and it is their right to do so. I don’t see this as any different. As an employer, they have the right to choose what they will offer their employees, and those employees have a right to choose if they want to accept that compensation package or not. It does not make birth control illegal – it simply upholds the rights of employers to refuse to pay for those services which violate their religious belief systems.

This mandate demonstrates a complete misunderstanding about what motivates people of faith to meet needs of communities. Free, faithful people, through their churches and religious affiliations, open schools, hospitals, missions, universities and other service oriented institutions because of a call on their hearts. To violate the same conscience which motivates that response, discourages the faithful which ultimately diminishes their drive to meet the need.

I would vote to support exemptions for religious institutions, not only because of the arguments framed above, but because North Dakotans overwhelmingly do not want Obamacare at all. The people of North Dakota recognize government interference and excessive regulations are strangling our economy and jobs and unnecessarily hindering full, robust economic recovery and growth.

Today, Sen. Al Franken stated publicly that he believes a vote in favor of the amendment to repeal would “deprive” some American women of their “right to contraception.” He is wrong. The issue is not whether or not a woman can use contraception, but rather a matter of who should pay for it. I believe it is an individual’s decision whether or not to use contraception, and that decision comes with a responsibility to pay for it.

The issue at stake is one of private organizations’ religious beliefs and business models based on those beliefs, and whether or not we allow private institutions and organizations to operate freely according to those beliefs and principles. The efforts to repeal do not make birth control illegal or revoke any other groups protected freedoms and rights. It simply protects the First Amendment rights of the affected religious groups to operate in accordance to their conscience without government interference.”

SHANE GOETTLE, Republican candidate for U.S. House

Shane Goettle

“I stand against federal insurance mandates. I believe the Health Care Act should be repealed and that we should start over with market-based health care reforms.

There is indeed, a first amendment issue created by the mandate. But there is also something equally fundamental:  mandates stretch the commerce clause to its breaking point and turns our federal government into a command and control center over our individual lives. If this much control can exist over health there remains nothing left to limit the federal governments intrusion into our private lives and into our businesses.

I’d vote yes, but not just for the religious liberties reasons, but also to limit the reach of the Health Care Act.”

BETTE GRANDE, Republican candidate for U.S. House

Bette Grande

“First of all, we need to understand that President Obama is playing politics with this issue.  This is not simply about contraception it is an attack on our liberty and it is an attack on our rights as Americans.  The federal government does not have the authority to force insurance companies or employers to provide services that violate one’s conscience.  The President knows that the American people are angry about his agenda and he is using birth control as his new wedge to split the conservative base.  It is not going to work.  When I am in Congress, I will be a vocal opponent of the President if he gets re-elected.  When I took on the Board of Public Instruction over their liberal agenda and attempts to restrict parental rights and other individual freedoms  it was not popular – but was necessary for our families and children.  I will do the same in Congress.   

Yes it does (infringe on religious liberties), but just as important it infringes on individual conscience.  It is an attack on everything this country was built on – it is an attack on our personal liberties, an attack on the First Amendment and an attack on our families.  This is just the latest battle in the fight for our country but the President woke up a sleeping giant and the people now see that this is a fight worth having.  And I am used to having these fights with powerful liberals, and I can’t wait to have a chance at this fight in Washington.

If we get rid of Obamacare, which will be one of my top three priorities in Congress once I get there, we won’t have to worry about any kind of exemptions, loopholes or political giveaways.  The solution is not to nibble at the edges of Obamacare and its mandates – the solution is to pull Obamacare out by the root and throw it away.  This is a fight worth having – a fight I am used to having with powerful liberals and a fight I can’t wait to get involved in while in Congress.  

I am in favor of legislation that blocks the contraception mandate in the Obamacare regulations.  S. 2043, sponsored by Sen. Marco Rubio is a step in the right direction.”

PAM GULLESON, Democratic candidate for U.S. House

Pam Gulleson

“As a mother and a breast cancer survivor, I know firsthand the joys and the challenges that women face over the course of our lives. Health care choices are deeply personal. Just as women who don’t believe in birth control should never be forced to use it, women who do want to use birth control, shouldn’t be told by Washington politicians that they can’t. Congress is trying to divide voters over these issues, and I believe that does a great disservice to the people of North Dakota. I’m dedicated to uniting North Dakotans to build a strong future for our state.

I am a steadfast supporter of women’s health, but I understand the need to find common ground that takes into consideration the deeply held religious beliefs of many Americans. I would support a compromise that encompassed both of these values. I would not vote for this legislation because it takes health care decisions from patients and doctors and puts them in the hands of politicians, insurance companies and employers.  To be clear, I am committed to protecting religious organizations and I am glad insurance companies can provide a compromise.”

BRIAN KALK, Republican candidate for U.S. House

Brian Kalk

“I am opposed to the regulation issued by the Obama Administration that mandates all health services – even faith based organizations – cover sterilizations and contraceptives, including those that cause abortions.  The revision later offered by the President doesn’t go far enough to protect religious freedoms, as it will still force religious groups to contribute dollars toward providing services which they morally oppose.

By compelling Catholic hospitals, universities, charitable institutions, individuals, and insurers to cover procedures that are contrary to the tenets of the Catholic faith, this Administration has crossed the line. This mandate will force Catholics to act against the teachings of their faith and against their own consciences.  This is a direct assault on religious liberty in our country.

The proposed amendment to Obamacare (H.R. 3897 and S. 2043) is an acceptable stopgap measure to hold off this Administration’s assault on religious liberty.   Given the current  situation, I would vote in favor of this bill.   But, Obamacare must be repealed; if the Supreme Court does not do it, then Congress must. I will vote to repeal the entire Obamacare Act.  Until it is repealed or struck down by the Supreme Court, it is a continuing threat to our economy, our healthcare system, and our religious freedom.

KIM KOPPELMAN, Republican candidate for U.S. House

Kim Koppelman

“I am against (the federal mandate).  First of all, nothing is “free”.  Someone pays for it.  In this case, the insurance companies would likely pass the cost on to the premium payer (individuals, businesses, or “the government”, which really means the taxpayers because the government has no money to spend, other than that which it first takes from you or borrows now, for you to pay for later, with interest).

Second, the issue is not the service provided, but mandates, themselves.  They are an example of a “government knows best” attitude and they must be paid for by increased costs of insurance and, often, higher costs of the services, themselves.  That’s why we’ve resisted such mandates in the North Dakota Legislature. The Obama Administration is intruding upon freedom with a “Washington knows best” attitude, once more.

Forcing someone to do something that violates their conscious or religious beliefs is not government’s right. The Constitution clearly provides for freedom of religion and forbids a state church.  The Obama Administration is once again demonstrating that it wants to dictate beliefs, rather than respecting them. The Administration’s early action on this matter also infringed on another First Amendment Constitutional Right–that of Free Speech.  It reportedly prohibited clergy serving as military chaplains from conveying their church’s opposition to this measure to those serving in the military. What’s most frightening is that this is just one small piece of the Obama Administration’s implementation of this terrible legislation. 

I would support expanding such exemptions, as a stop gap measure to stop unconstitutional, “big government” edicts, and to slow the implementation of Mr. Obama’s, Ms. Pelosi’s and Mr. Reed’s government health scheme, but the real solution is to eliminate it completely.”

ERIC OLSON, libertarian candidate for U.S. House

Eric Olson (libertarian)

“I think for federal government to regulate products or services other for reasons outside of it’s constitutional authority is wrong. Control of health care is not in that category.

If a persons religion requires them to be in the business of providing services effected by the bill. It should be noted that I have not read the bill, because I am not really interested in the issue.

I would likely (again having not read them) support it as it removes some of the federal government’s overstep.

Because my answers do not make it clear. I will state that I think birth control is a good thing. Overpopulation is a quickly growing problem and those concerned with stopping abortion will find it increasingly difficult to sell their point of view as it does.”

Republican U.S. House candidate DuWayne Hendrickson did not respond to e-mails seeking comment this week.