Jina Dhillon, immediate past-president of NCWU, and staff at NCWU member Ipas, generously provided us with the below post of last week’s Supreme Court (SCOTUS) decision in the Burwell v Hobby Lobby Store, Inc. case, in which 5 of the SCOTUS justices essentially said that what constitutes women’s health care and fair employee compensation is up for debate in ways that men’s health care is not. We at NCWU, and many of our members, were deeply disappointed in the outcome of this case.
The Supreme Court’s recent decision permitting certain employers to allow their religious beliefs to dictate the type of health coverage offered to their employees is a dangerous precedent and immediate threat to women’s health. Employers like Hobby Lobby and other closely-held corporations may refuse to include basic birth control coverage in the health plans they offer, if it is contrary to their sincerely held religious beliefs. The decision steps into a dangerous new territory in which certain for-profit corporations can exercise religious rights that directly impact, and harm, their employees.
The decision also opens the door to new questions about what else an employer might refuse to provide in the name of religion—such as blood transfusions and vaccines. In her dissenting opinion, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg characterized the decision as leaving the door open for for-profit entities to seek religion-based exemptions from other regulations that they deem offensive to their sincerely held faith (including paying the minimum wage!). It is a startling outrage that corporations—remember, these are legal entities, not actual persons—are now deemed eligible to exercise a right to religious freedom to the detriment of those working to sustain and grow that very corporation’s bottom line. Justice Ginsburg also points out the commonsensical notion that workers are often coming to an employer from diverse racial, ethnic, and religious backgrounds; therefore subjecting them to the religious faith and interpretations ascribed to by their employer is unjust and contrary to the true intent of religious freedom enshrined in our Constitution.
This is a decision related to the legal rights of corporations, but more importantly, this is a decision about who is able to control women’s lives. A woman’s ability to exercise economic, social, and political independence is inextricably linked to her ability to control and maintain autonomy of her reproductive health. If a woman can’t control if, when, and how many children she has, there is little else in her life that she can control. For many women, affordability is the key factor limiting their ability to choose the contraceptive method that is most appropriate. Justice Ginsburg again made the point in her dissent that the cost of an intra-uterine device (IUD), for long acting and reversible contraception, is nearly equivalent to a month’s full-time pay for workers who earn the minimum wage.
In general, women have historically seen higher rates and inadequate coverage when it comes to their private insurance coverage. Often lacking essential coverage for maternity and newborn care, as well as a wide range of birth control options meeting their needs, women are more likely to experience heavier financial burdens and unwanted pregnancy when their health coverage does not meet their needs.
The Affordable Care Act (ACA) takes important steps to correct these historic injustices. By requiring new health plans to cover certain preventive services for women at no additional cost, and by requiring that coverage to include all FDA-approved contraceptive drugs and devices, women were finally afforded the reproductive autonomy to make, and afford, the decisions that were best for their lives. From the day it was passed, lawsuits against the ACA were filed across the country. The lawsuits challenged all sorts of aspects of the landmark law, including the requirement to cover contraception at no cost. This provision related to contraceptive coverage alone has sparked more than 50 lawsuits in courts across the country, with the Hobby Lobbylawsuit being the first to reach the Supreme Court.
Contraception is critical preventive care for women’s health. Professional academies, associations, and countless scholars have overwhelming deemed contraception critical because it allows a woman to space her pregnancies, it permits women to take certain medications that may pose serious risks to maternal and fetal health to prevent those harms, and it allows women with certain medical conditions (like heart disease and diabetes) to control those conditions so they can carry healthy pregnancies to term when they are ready.
The federal requirement to provide coverage that includes basic birth control has never required the owners of a religious business to participate in, agree with, or encourage any form of contraceptive act; but non-religious businesses, no matter the personal opinion of managers or owners, were not exempt. Put simply, a woman’s decision whether and when to use contraception is her business, not her boss’s. She should have access to all the necessary information and counseling that she needs to make this decision, but by no means should the religion or faith of her employer dictate her choices, or lack thereof.
The controversial lawsuit has sparked much debate across the country, and the discourse is likely to grow in the coming weeks. The White House spokesperson has promised that the Administration will work with Congress to ensure that women employed by corporations that can refuse contraceptive coverage will still have access to the vital services they need. It remains to be seen how this will all play out, but for now, advocates and women everywhere are deeply disappointed with this major setback.
This should be a no-brainer, but unfortunately we are forced to say this out loud: women should be in control of their own lives. A woman shouldn’t be asking her boss what type of birth control will be best for her life—to avoid pregnancy, to minimize harm from other health conditions, to ensure future pregnancies are healthy, etc. Employers are almost always going to be ill-equipped to answer any and all of these questions—and if a woman wants help answering these questions from a religion, she can seek guidance from her own faith. To the Supreme Court and any employers out there celebrating this decision—women don’t need your help with these questions. We got this.
Jina Dhillon, immediate Past-President, NCWU