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Our Bodies, Our Bosses

March 21, 2014

Remember Our Bodies, Ourselves, the classic book about women’s health and reproduction?  Its title is a simple statement of principle. Yet on 25 March, the Supreme Court begins hearing oral arguments in two cases, Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. and Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp. v. Sebelius, in each of which employers at for-profit corporations want to deny their employees the right to receive insurance coverage for the costs of birth control, based on the bosses’ personal beliefs.

Birth control is tremendously important to women for all kinds of reasons.  Under the Affordable Care Act (ACA) women have access to this important preventive care at no cost. Washington University’s Contraceptive CHOICE Study demonstrated that when women get access to the birth control method of their choice with no financial barrier, there is a significant drop in unintended pregnancy and abortion rates. In addition, nearly 60 percent of women who use the birth control pill use it for medical reasons, such as management of endometriosis and painful menstrual periods. From every angle, no-copay birth control is smart policy.

ImageThat is why so much is at stake in these cases, which could create a slippery slope, giving for-profit employers the right to use religion to justify interfering with their employees’ own medical preferences.  If corporations get the right to discriminate and deny health care coverage, it would harm millions of people.

Imagine a world where your boss is legally empowered to deny coverage for mental health care or vaccinations because his religion doesn’t approve of it, or where a bank can refuse to approve a loan for a single mother because she doesn’t fit the bank owner’s personal definition of “head of household,” or where a person with HIV can be denied a job at a restaurant chain because the owner of the company has made a moral judgment about how he contracted the virus.

Most people don’t want corporations discriminating or denying health care coverage, and that’s what this case is about.  In an NBC/Wall St Journal poll earlier this month, a clear majority opposed employers’ rights to opt out of the health mandate. And a group of 45 religious leaders have signed a letter declaring support of birth control coverage, pointing out that the two for-profit companies challenging the ACA’s no-copay birth control provisions don’t speak for all people of faith. Although Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood are arguing that extending birth control coverage to workers is a violation of their religious liberty, the letter’s signatories point out that isn’t how that concept has traditionally been defined.

The faith leaders say:

“Religious freedom means that each individual has the right to exercise their own beliefs and the right not to have others’ beliefs forced upon them. No single religious voice can speak for all faith traditions on contraception, nor should government take sides on religious differences. We call on our government to respect the beliefs and values of everyone’s faith by safeguarding equal access to contraception for those whose conscience leads them to use it.”

This is not a conversation about religion.  Nor is it about a business agenda.  It’s an extreme social agenda.  Bottom line: the choice about whether to use birth control should be between a woman and her doctor — and no employer should be able to interfere with that right.

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