Oregon Right to Life sues state over birth control, abortion insurance mandate

A leading anti-abortion advocacy group is suing state insurance regulators in a case that could hobble a landmark Oregon law requiring insurance companies to cover abortion and contraceptives.

The Reproductive Health Equity Act, passed in 2017, requires every private insurer in the state to cover reproductive health services, including contraceptives, at no cost to patients. All but one insurer, Providence Health Plan, must also cover abortion services. 

The law allows insurers to offer plans that don’t include abortion or contraceptive coverage to religious employers, such as churches, that exist to instill religious values and primarily employ and serve people who share the employer’s religious beliefs. Oregon Right to Life doesn’t meet that definition of a religious employer, but it should be allowed an exemption, according to its 32-page complaint filed Tuesday in the U.S. District Court in Eugene. 

“As a pro-life advocate, ORTL seeks to have all that it says and does be consistent with its beliefs and pro-life message,” the complaint said. “This applies to employee health insurance coverage. ORTL believes funding insurance coverage for abortion communicates a message contrary to its pro-life message.”

The suit seeks a federal ruling ordering the state to make an exception for Oregon Right to Life, requiring any insurance company that provides a health plan to the organization to accommodate the organization’s religious beliefs and not provide coverage for abortion or some kinds of contraception. The complaint also asks for a ruling blocking the state from enforcing its mandate on any insurer, and such a ruling could clear the way for other companies to block coverage for abortion and some contraception on health insurance plans.

As defendant, the lawsuit names the Department of Consumer and Business Services and its director, Andrew Stolfi. A department spokesman said the agency is reviewing the complaint with its attorneys at the Department of Justice.

Shawn Lindsay, a former Republican state representative who now serves on the Oregon Government Ethics Commission, is the Oregon-based attorney who filed the complaint on behalf of Oregon Right to Life. The conservative Bopp Law Firm, based in Indiana, serves as legal counsel for Oregon Right to Life and is seeking court approval to join the case despite its attorneys not being licensed to practice law in Oregon. 

Oregon Right to Life specifically objects to four types of contraceptives: two “morning after” pills that are intended to serve as a fail-safe preventing the implantation of a fertilized egg in the uterus, and two types of intrauterine devices because the long-term internal contraceptive could prevent a fertilized egg from implanting if it’s inserted up to five days after intercourse. The organization believes that life begins the moment an egg is fertilized, so blocking that egg from implanting in the uterus is the same as abortion, which it opposes. 

That was the same objection at the heart of the 2014 U.S. Supreme Court case Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, a 5-4 decision from the court’s conservative majority that allowed companies with a small group of owners to deny contraceptive coverage if the owners objected to including contraceptives in their firm’s insurance plans because of their religious beliefs. The Obama administration responded to that ruling by requiring insurance companies to offer contraceptive coverage directly to employees without going through their employer-based plan. 

The complaint indicates that Oregon Right to Life wants to change insurance companies. Its eight employees now receive company-sponsored health insurance through Providence Health Plan, the only insurer in the state that doesn’t cover abortion services except in the case of a severe threat to the mother or if the fetus won’t survive. Providence does, however, cover contraceptives, including the ones Oregon Right to Life considers deadly to a fetus. 

“(Providence Health Plan) is not suitable because it covers abortifacient ‘contraceptives’ and abortion beyond imminent danger to the mother’s life,” the complaint said. 

Oregon Right to Life also considers Providence Health Plan “not suitable” because Oregon Health & Science University isn’t in-network and because it has had steeper rate hikes than other insurers, the complaint said. Employees also objected to other options, such as faith-based medical cost-sharing groups, as they want traditional health insurance.

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Julia Shumway is deputy editor of Oregon Capital Chronicle and has reported on government and politics in Iowa and Nebraska, spent time at the Bend Bulletin and most recently was a legislative reporter for the Arizona Capitol Times in Phoenix. An award-winning journalist, Julia most recently reported on the tangled efforts to audit the presidential results in Arizona.