Women’s Health and Rights Activists Speak Out to Protect Contraception Coverage

Should for-profit companies be allowed to refuse to cover contraception costs for employees because of the religious objections of their owners? The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the National Women’s Law Center, the Planned Parenthood Action Fund (PPAF), and NARAL Pro-Choice America are adamantly against such an idea, and the groups are pulling out the stops to ensure that their voices are heard.

The groups hosted a joint telephone press conference on March 20 to discuss upcoming cases, brought by two corporations, challenging the Affordable Care Act (ACA)’s requirement that employers provide coverage for contraception as part of an employee’s health plan.

As part of the ACA, the federal government issued a rule that requires health plans to cover contraception without a co-pay. Under the final rule, the administration has allowed exceptions for nonprofits with religious objections to covering contraceptives. The rule was designed to ensure that employees could receive contraception coverage but that a nonprofit employer with religious objections would not bear the cost or otherwise have any connection to it.

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Supreme Court Decides to Hear Challenges to Rule

On November 26, 2013, the Supreme Court announced that it would hear two challenges to the contraception rule: one from an Oklahoma-based craft-supply chain store (Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., 13-354) and another from a Pennsylvania-based furniture manufacturer (Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp. v. Sebelius, 13-356).

At the March 20 press conference, Cecile Richards, president of the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, said that every major medical institute confirms that birth control prevents pregnancy from happening, and that it does not end pregnancy. “The fact that the CEOs of these corporations wrongfully believe that some birth control methods are a form of abortion is just further support for the fact that we are all better off when we leave medical decisions to a woman and her doctor, not to her boss or politician,” said Richards.

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Birth Control Allows Women to Plan Their Futures

Marcia Greenberger, founder and co-president of the National Women’s Law Center, chimed in, emphasizing how important the birth control requirement of the ACA is in ensuring that women can meet their basic preventive health care needs. “It is essential for women to be able to plan their educations and future in the workforce,” said Greenberger.

Pointing to studies that show that access to birth control increases women’s participation in the workforce as well as their wages, Greenberger said that many women haven’t been able to use effective and safe contraceptives because they simply can't afford them. The ACA, she said, “puts all of these (birth control) forms, including the IUD, and the pill within the reach of all women at all income levels.”

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Watching Healthcare Costs

Many women's groups say that if employers do not cover birth control, women end up bearing higher costs than men for their basic healthcare. “There was outrage when Viagra was automatically covered and women said, what happened to contraception, how come that is not covered? Women already have a wage gap; if these companies prevail they’ll have a health insurance gap too,” said Greenberger.

Also at the press conference was Louise Melling, deputy legal director of the ACLU, who argued that if the Supreme Court were to rule in favor of the corporations, employees would be denied a benefit that they’re entitled to under the law—as well as see income diverted to pay for that benefit.

Courtney Everett, who is associated with Planned Parenthood in Chicago, provided anecdotal evidence of the importance of having insurance coverage. Diagnosed at age 17 with endometriosis, she used the pill and the contraceptive NuvaRing to manage her severe pain and heavy periods, and to protect her health.

Now, Everett, who has two children, has developed a medical condition and must use a copper IUD instead of her previous birth control. “IUDs can cost upwards of $1,000. Thanks to the ACA, IUDs are covered, like all other FDA-approved contraceptive methods, without the co-pay. Time and again, birth control has been least expensive for my employer to cover,” she said.

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Group Vows to Fight Discrimination

“Religious freedom gives us the right to hold beliefs, but not to impose beliefs on others or discriminate against others," said Melling. "If they don’t provide contraceptive coverage consistent with the law, they are imposing their beliefs on their employees. If they are granted an exemption it’s a way of using religion in order to discriminate."

Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, said that the majority of women understand that access to family planning is integral for their economic security, equality, and fundamental freedom. “We are the majority that knows our bodies are not our bosses’ business. We’ve had enough of this conversation being about concerns of bosses like the CEO of Hobby Lobby and tens of thousands of workers, many of whom are at minimum wage, where $30 or $40 at the end of the month makes a difference. They will be at the mercy of their employers if they get their way.”

Hogue added that if the Supreme Court decides in favor of the plaintiffs, a precedent could be set, allowing employers to deny, on religious grounds, coverage for vaccinations and HIV medications.

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Contraception Used by Almost All American Women

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), virtually all American women of reproductive age in 2006–2010 who had ever had sexual intercourse have used at least one contraceptive method at some point in their lifetime (99 percent, or 53 million women aged 15 to 44), including 88 percent who have used a highly effective, reversible method such as birth control pills, an injectable method, a contraceptive patch, or an intrauterine device.

In a study, “Countering Conventional Wisdom: New Evidence on Religion and Contraceptive Use,” conducted by the Guttmacher Organization, Rachel Jones and Joerg Dreweke take the CDC’s figure one step further: “Among all women who have had sex, 99 percent have ever used a contraceptive method other than natural family planning. This figure is virtually the same, 98 percent, among sexually experienced Catholic women,” the study states.

Where does President Obama stand on the matter? An official statement from the White House said, “We do not comment on specifics of a case pending before the Court. As a general matter, our policy is designed to ensure that health care decisions are made between a woman and her doctor. The President believes that no one, including the government or for-profit corporations, should be able to dictate those decisions to women.”

The release continued, “The Administration has already acted to ensure no church or similar religious institution will be forced to provide contraception coverage and has made a commonsense accommodation for non-profit religious organizations that object to contraception on religious grounds. These steps protect both women’s health and religious beliefs, and seek to ensure that women and families--not their bosses or corporate CEOs—can make personal health decisions based on their needs and their budgets.”

The Supreme Court could issue a decision on this case at any time between oral arguments and the conclusion of the Court's term in June.