This week the U.S. Supreme Court dealt a startling blow to women’s reproductive freedom and access to health care. The Court weighed in 5-4 on the side of Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., saying their health plans do not have to cover contraception for their female employees, as required by the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Hobby Lobby’s female employees of all religions who want to use contraception — which can cost more than a minimum wage earner makes in a week — will now have to pay for it themselves.
Hobby Lobby objected on religious grounds to covering certain types of contraceptives its owners believe are akin to abortion, including IUDs and the “morning-after” pill, despite scientific evidence to the contrary. While at first it seemed that the Court’s ruling applied narrowly to only these types of contraception, the Court clarified on Tuesday that its decision applies to all methods of contraception covered under the ACA.
Contraceptive coverage is crucial to women’s health and reproductive freedom. Not only are contraceptives used by women to prevent pregnancies, they also are prescribed to help women with medical problems that are unrelated to sexual activity. The belief that women should be able to make their own personal health care decisions has been further eroded. Now some employers have the right to deny their female employees access to contraceptives if those employees can’t afford it themselves.
In this case, the Court extended freedom of religion protections traditionally possessed by individuals to corporations, as well. The idea that corporations should be treated as “persons” has been long debated, with various outcomes. For example, should companies be able to finance campaigns? To vote? To bear arms? While freedom of religion is a fundamental tenet of our country’s founding, it is odd to consider a for-profit company as having “beliefs.” Must shareholders vote on each belief? As Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote in her dissent, “Profit making companies do not exist to further religious goals, and their employees are drawn from a multitude of faiths.” In this case, the majority’s efforts to preserve a for-profit company’s religious beliefs have transformed into a mode of discrimination against women.
The Court said this decision applies only to coverage of contraception for employees of closely-held corporations – in this case, family-run. However, most companies fit this definition. Studies estimate that as many as 90% of corporations are closely held, employing more than half of the total workforce. It is not hard to see how the Court’s reasoning could be extended in the future to deny all organizations’ workers other types of medical coverage. Groups representing women and the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) population fear it will open the door to further court decisions allowing employers to assert their religious beliefs to control other aspects of their lives. If, for example, a corporation’s owners religious beliefs object to lesbian, gay, or transgender people, can the owners argue they should have the right to refuse to hire a qualified gay employee? It is disappointing and scary to watch as yet another Supreme Court ruling erodes the ability for women to access health care and control their own bodies. This is a serious step backward for women and the LGBT community, and may have devastating consequences for years to come.
Written by Sheree Levine, CWEALF volunteer, and Catherine Bailey, Legal and Public Policy Director
Photo: Planned Parenthood for Action