No one owns Senator Edward M. Kennedy’s legacy. But Scott Brown has made an essentially deceptive claim — that the senator would support the Blunt Amendment. He has not just made the statement; he used it in a political advertisement. It is not only wrong but disrespectful to invoke the Kennedy name for a position that is contrary to what the senator believed.
Kennedy’s record and his values were based on the belief that all Americans should be treated equally under the law. This commitment was at the heart of his lifelong battle for civil rights, for employment opportunity, for educational opportunity. He believed that quality, affordable health care should be the birthright of every American, both men and women. That is why he had a long and consistent history of supporting legislation to provide contraceptive coverage. As Kennedy put it during a hearing in 2001, “contraceptive insurance coverage is essential for women’s health.” In 1997, 1999, 2001, 203, and 2005, Kennedy co-sponsored the Equity in Prescription Insurance and Contraceptive Coverage Act introduced by Republican Senator Olympia Snowe. The legislation would have prohibited insurers from restricting contraception or denying contraceptive services — and the bill had no exemption for religious or moral reasons.
But Kennedy was also deeply sensitive to issues of conscience. He included conscience clauses in many of his own health bills, including his comprehensive health reform bill that was approved by his health committee in 2009. That bill was the foundation of the Affordable Care Act that President Obama signed into law in 2010.
Kennedy believed that doctors or nurses or hospitals should not be required to perform non-emergency procedures in violation of their religious beliefs. But in every case — every case — Kennedy wanted to make sure that patients still received the health care they needed at no extra cost. That includes contraceptive coverage for women.
He would have supported wholeheartedly Obama's accommodation of the health care rules as applicable to religiously affiliated institutions. But he would not have supported any efforts to curtail equal access to health care for women or any Americans.
Over the past few weeks, Brown talked up his opposition to the Obama provisions and his support of the so-called Blunt Amendment. The Blunt Amendment, had the United States Senate not defeated it this week, would have allowed any employer or any insurer to deny coverage for any health care service, as long as they could claim a religious or moral objection to the service, leaving women with no coverage at all. The provision is so extreme that it would allow employers to deny single women maternity care or deny married couples the use of birth control.
Brown has had the temerity to suggest that Kennedy would have shared his position — and that Kennedy’s record backs that up. Nothing could be further from the truth. We were the senator's staff directors from 1988 to 2009 on the health committee that handled these issues. We can say with confidence, after working side-by-side with Kennedy every day for more than two decades, that the Blunt Amendment is totally contrary to Kennedy’s positions.
Finally, Brown — and in defending Brown, this very newspaper — rely on Kennedy’s letter to the pope to interpret Kennedy’s position. But the letter, as the Globe itself notes, is simply a brief reference that does not purport to explain his views in detail. As a result, the best guide to Kennedy’s position is not wild and unfounded speculation, but Kennedy’s lifelong commitment to expanding access to health care — and his record of supporting access to contraception.
Contrary to what the Globe asserted, there is no ambiguity about Kennedy’s position on conscience clauses in health care. He believed individual practitioners should not be required to provide health care services to which they had a religious or moral objection. He did not believe in similar exclusions for mandatory insurance coverage.
This position is consistent with the recollections of his family members, his former staffers, and most of all, with his public record.
Brown certainly has a right to advocate for a conscience clause for insurance companies. That is one of the issues that the people of Massachusetts will consider when they cast their votes this fall. But he has no right to falsify Kennedy’s views. He should stop distorting Kennedy’s legacy.
The authors both served as staff director for the Senate Health, Education, and Labor Committee, Littlefield from 1988-1998 and Myers from 1998-2009.