By Ann Carroll I remember when I got my first job out of college that offered health care benefits. As a young woman who wanted to get a running start on my career before having a family, I needed access to birth control. I was in a committed relationship with the man who would become my husband, and we both wanted to build a solid financial foundation before adding kids to the mix. I can’t imagine what I would have thought if my employer tried to bar my access to that future.
Last week the Supreme Court heard two cases—Sebilus v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. and Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp. v. Sebelius—that involve companies who wish to opt out of the Affordable Care Act requirement that employer-provided insurance cover contraception. The companies cite moral and religious reasons. They assert that they, as corporations, have a First Amendment right to freedom of religion.
This is a toughie. I can understand why a business owner who has a genuine moral issue with contraception would find a requirement to cover contraception a bitter pill to swallow. On the other hand, allowing a large company to opt out of coverage opens up Pandora’s Box. If a company can opt out of providing contraception, what else can it opt out? What’s to stop a company from refusing to cover vaccines, citing a religious objection? The Catholic Church supports vaccines, but discourages the use of any that were created using cell lines from aborted fetuses. Christian Scientists don’t have a policy against vaccines, but rely on prayer for healing.
Additionally, the Affordable Care Act does not require small employers—such as churches—to offer health care coverage. Even religiously affiliated groups can claim an exemption, but the law does not allow large-scale companies like Hobby Lobby (a defendant in one case) to deny contraception coverage. The national craft store has 609 locations and more than 18,000 employees. From a practical standpoint, denying contraception coverage to that many women—many of whom make minimum wage or only slightly higher—sets the stage for these low-to-mid income women to make tough choices if they do in fact become pregnant.
Beyond that, the companies protesting the contraception-coverage requirement are assuming that women use contraception solely to have sex freely. As women, we all know there are other reasons for needing birth control: regulating periods, managing PMS symptoms, clearing up acne, or preventing pregnancy because of an unsafe medical condition.
So what’s the answer? It’s one that legal analysts predict the high court will be trying to find for years to come. These cases are only the first of many challenges to the requirements under the Affordable Care Act. But we’ve got to remember why the stipulation was put in place: to ensure that all women have equal access to health care services. That’s worth fighting for.
If you want more information on the cases currently before the court – the New York Times as a great “Q & A” article on the topic.