By Katherine Greenier, Director, Patricia M. Arnold Women’s Project, ACLU of VirginiaThe turmoil over access to birth control these past few weeks could result in disturbing scenarios for access to health care. If some lawmakers and religious groups, like the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, have their way, you may be denied critical health care services simply because of your employer’s religious or moral beliefs. For example, under their worldview, if your employer thinks premarital sex is sinful, you could be refused coverage of treatment or screening for STDs. If your employer objects to blood transfusions, you could find yourself without coverage for critical care for you and your family. It sounds crazy, but that’s just where the manufactured controversy over contraception could take us.
The “debate” over birth control is long settled. It has been nearly 50 years since the U.S. Supreme Court recognized that access to contraception is protected by the federal Constitution, and birth control is used by 99 percent of women at some point in their lives. Yet a debate about birth control has been raging for several months and will continue as there are powerful political actors who are determined to radically redefine the relationship between health care access and one’s personal beliefs.
What’s at issue is a federal rule requiring new insurance plans to include birth control in their coverage. The rule exempts houses of worship and will also ensure that religiously affiliated nonprofit institutions – like hospitals and universities – that object to contraception do not have to contribute to the cost of the contraceptive coverage.
The bishops are not satisfied. They have said they will not rest until all employers and insurers – religious and secular – are allowed to exclude contraception from their health insurance plans. They are on record as saying, “The only complete solution to this religious liberty problem is for (the government) to rescind the mandate of these objectionable services.” If they get their way, the CEO of a big manufacturing company or the head of a small home healthcare service could decide, based on his or her personal moral beliefs, to refuse to include coverage for birth control in employees’ health insurance plans.
The bishops’ response has crystalized what this fight has always been about – which is not religious liberty, but who gets to determine the future of women’s health care.
There are now lawmakers on Capitol Hill stepping forward to advance this agenda, stopping at nothing to roll back access to contraception. Each proposal is more extreme than the next. One from Senator Roy Blunt, which has already been rejected by the Senate once, would essentially give all employers and insurers carte blanche to refuse to cover any service to which they have a moral objection. This would roll back insurance coverage for contraception and endanger coverage for countless other essential services. A business owner who believed immunizations were contrary to biblical precepts could refuse to cover vaccinations for his employees’ kids. Or a CEO who found a gay employee morally repugnant could decline to cover HIV testing. All of that would be deemed defensible in the name of religious liberty – and would be a direct result of the logic behind the bishops’ contraception crusade.
This isn’t about religious liberty. This is about imposing one’s faith on others. We simply can’t let that happen.