It's a big week for birth control. This Monday marked World Contraception Day — a day that raises awareness about contraception access around the globe. Today is the deadline for weighing in with the Department of Health and Human Services on important new guidelines that ensure coverage of contraception in health plans without extra out-of-pocket costs — along with a narrow exception that allows certain religious institutions like churches, synagogues, and mosques, to exclude birth control from their health plans.
The ACLU submitted comments supporting the contraceptive coverage requirement — it's a big deal — and urging the agency to resist pressure to allow other institutions that oppose the use of birth control on religious grounds, like hospitals, universities, and social services agencies, to deny their employees health insurance coverage of contraception.
Here's why this is so important:
Denying women contraceptive coverage is gender discrimination. Prescription birth control, for the most part, is a form of health care available only to women. And the consequences of lack of access to effective birth control — unintended pregnancies — fall on women. Women need access to contraceptives to prevent unintended pregnancies, plan the size of their families, plan their lives, and protect their health. It's essential, basic care. It empowers women to take control over their lives. And virtually all women use it.
Opponents of family planning have declared their opposition to access to contraception so consistently, it's easy to become desensitized. In any other context, we'd likely blanche at the thought of privileging an institution's religious beliefs over an individual's health care needs. Religiously based objections to health care services come in all different flavors. Some oppose contraception. Some oppose blood transfusions. Others oppose infertility treatments or genetic testing. Others still, oppose sex outside of marriage — they might, for example, object to insurance coverage of erectile dysfunction medication for unmarried men. These beliefs are sincerely held and they deserve respect. But they should not be allowed to trump laws that protect workers and their access to health care. Imagine if every person got a veto over someone else's health care coverage — the system would fall apart.
What's more, this kind of opposition isn't unique to health care services. It wasn't that long ago that individuals whose religious beliefs opposed desegregation wanted to be exempt from Civil Rights Act requirements so they could refuse to serve African-Americans in their restaurants. Or that religiously affiliated schools wanted to evade equal pay laws because their religion taught that men are the "head of the household," so women could be paid less. Opposition to contraception isn't any different — we're just more used to it.
The right to religious liberty doesn't come with the right to impose your beliefs on others. When it comes to ensuring access to health care, and deciding who to serve, institutions like hospitals and social service agencies should not get to opt out of requirements and impose their religious beliefs on people who don't share them.
These historic HHS guidelines are a major piece of the Affordable Care Act's promise to women: you'll get the health care you need. We trust that HHS will stand by them, and the women they protect.