On Tuesday the U.S. Supreme Court will take up two key cases about whether employers’ religious beliefs give them the right to deny coverage for birth control in their workers’ health insurance plans.
The two cases are Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., and Sebelius v. Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp. The two for-profit companies in the cases are challenging the Obama Administration’s requirement, under the new health care reform law, that most employees’ insurance plans cover birth control with no copay. The companies argue that the requirement violates the religious freedom of employers who oppose birth control on moral grounds.
Their argument turns the concept of religious freedom on its head. Religious freedom means letting women make personal decisions about family planning and other health care based on their own religious faith without interference from their employers or anyone else. Health insurance is, like wages, compensation for labor. Should employers who object to birth control also be able to bar their male employees from using their wages to buy condoms? Moreover, in what other areas should employers’ religious beliefs limit the religious and personal freedoms of their employees?
Those questions might seem ridiculous but somehow are taken seriously by some when it comes to the choices women make about whether and when to have children. And that seems to be the case even though, as the online magazine Salon explained in January, birth control isn’t a luxury or special benefit for women — it’s basic health care:
So much of the rhetoric against guaranteed coverage of contraception is predicated on the assumption that preventing unwanted pregnancy is somehow unrelated to women’s overall health, but this is just wrong. Controlling one’s own fertility is a perfectly legitimate medical reason — and the main reason — that women use birth control. In the United States, 42 percent of women use oral contraceptives exclusively to prevent pregnancy, but a majority of women — 58 percent — use birth control for this reason and for reasons other than pregnancy prevention. Fourteen percent of women use the pill for purely non-contraceptive reasons, including preventing migraines, regulating periods and treating endometriosis.
Most Americans oppose allowing employers to impose their religious beliefs on their workers. An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll released on Wednesday showed that Americans, by a margin of 53-41 percent, object to exempting employers from including birth control coverage in their workers’ health insurance plans. That margin is even larger among people ages 18 to 34: 62-33 percent.
A February 2013 commissioned by the TFN Education Fund found that registered voters in Texas, by a margin of 56-40 percent, opposed “allowing any employer or boss to deny their employees health care coverage for certain services, including birth control, because it violates the employer’s religious or moral beliefs.” By a margin of 53-43 percent, registered voters in Texas also opposed allowing employers to deny health care coverage for emergency contraception specifically.
Desperate to persuade Americans that they’re wrong, religious-right groups have claimed that emergency contraception, like Plan B and Ella, cause abortions. But the science says that’s simply not true. (Other claims by birth control opponents are even more ludicrous, such as the howler that women’s contraception leads heterosexual men to turn to other men for sex.)
Some opponents also claim that birth control isn’t expensive and that women will still have access to it even without insurance coverage. Maybe the men who make that claim should look beyond the cost of the box of condoms they purchase at the corner drug store. Birth control for women can cost considerably more.
These Supreme Court cases also raise another issue — courts matter. Conservatives have increasingly turned to the courts in an effort to win judicially what they haven’t won at the ballot box. (That has been especially true with regard to the Affordable Care Act.) In short, the right has tried to stonewall and slow down confirmation for federal judges in an effort to stack the judicial deck. The result has been a backlog of court vacancies. This is important to remember as the right’s assault on family planning and women’s health care continues.