A Thin Veil of Morality and Freedom Obstructing Women’s Health

In 2004, I organized many fellow young people to attend the March for Women’s Lives that brought over 1,000,000 men and women to DC demanding that the Bush administration stop their attacks on women’s health. Clearly this fight is far from over.

This month, the Obama Administration’s health care reform contraceptive coverage ruling is now law.This contraception policy ensures millions of women will have affordable access to contraception and other preventive care with no out-of-pocket cost to them

The new birth control regulation extends to the employees and students at religiously affiliated universities and hospitals. If a religiously affiliated university or hospital does not offer contraception coverage as part of their plan, women have the option of being covered at no cost to them by insurance companies. This is an important victory for women.

But employers are filing lawsuits to challenge the contraceptive coverage policy, in spite of the Supreme Court decision in favor of the health care reform.  As a young woman of color involved in women’s rights causes during and after college, I was drawn to electoral politics in part because of women’s health and rights. In 2004, I organized many fellow young people to attend the March for Women’s Lives that brought over 1,000,000 men and women to DC demanding that the Bush administration stop their attacks on women’s health. Clearly this fight is far from over.

Why cover contraception? Well, first, contraception allows women to determine when they are ready and willing to increase the size of their families, thus reducing significant economic burden on women, their families and society. According to a 2011 report from the New England Journal of Medicine,every $1 spent on public funding for family planning saves taxpayers $3.74 in pregnancy related costs. Without using any contraception, 85% of couples will have a pregnancy within 1 year.

Second, the reproductive health benefits of contraception are considerable. Numerous studies have noted specifically hormonal contraceptives (eg. pills, shots, skin patches, implants, IUDs and vaginal rings) have various benefits like reducing the risk of cancer, ovarian or endometrial.  They are also known to improve the health of mothers-to-be, ease menstrual cramps, and reduce or eliminate excessive or irregular bleeding. There are many women who need contraceptives as their crucial medicine to make it through each month. 

For these reasons, birth control pills are the most common drug taken in America by young and middle-aged women, regardless of religious affiliation.  (A majority of Catholic and Evangelical women have used them at one point in their lives).   They are part of basic preventative care, and all viable contraceptive methods should be affordable to women no matter what their socioeconomic status.

The health care reform debate highlighted the stories of women who couldn’t qualify for crucial public family planning funding, but who opted not to get their contraception or the best contraception for them (which is often the most expensive) because their insurance didn’t cover contraceptives, or had high deductibles or expensive co-pays. More than half of unintended pregnancies in the United States occur among the 10.7% who don’t use any contraceptive method. (The rest? They can be attributed to inconsistent or imperfect use or to contraceptive failure.)

From a cost benefit analysis, a fiscal conservative should appreciate the money that would not be spent on Medicaid for pregnancy and post pregnancy care for women. In the 1970s, the support behind public family planning to prevent unexpected pregnancies came from fiscal conservatives who understood the economic benefit to American families.

However, the debate is clearly not about the economics, but about who should control women’s decisions about their lives. When the Obama administration compromised with religiously affiliated hospitals and universities on contraception coverage and left that to the insurance companies, the Catholic Bishops still continued their campaign and complaints against covering contraception. The defeated Blunt Amendment in the US Senate would have allowed religious groups and employers to turn down any coverage to which they morally objected. And of course as cited earlier, there are pending employer lawsuits.

To be sure, opponents of the contraceptive coverage policy say their arguments are morality arguments or individual freedom arguments. They argue that they should not have to provide contraceptives with which they morally disagree on religious grounds.

But I ask, how is it morally acceptable to deprive women access to basic health care?

True religious freedom gives everyone the right to make personal decisions on their own health care and whether or not to use contraception.

There is no freedom for a woman who cannot determine her reproductive destiny, who has no safe, legal, and affordable access to her options. We don’t win every battle in women’s health, but wins like affordable access to contraception are important.  Never before has a woman been able to depend on health insurance not discriminating against her because of her gender or been free from worry about her inability to pay for much needed contraceptive services.

But all women must remain ever vigilant and fight against current and future attempts to erode these newly won health care freedoms, not only in our communities but at the ballot box this November.