Ask women about birth control, and they’ll tell you they use it to protect their health and to plan their families. They are also likely to explain that it allows them to participate in the workforce and pursue their education. In other words, it’s critical to their health and equality.
New regulations issued by the Trump administration today, however, could threaten all of that. Under the regulations, bosses and universities can use religion as an excuse to deny their staff and students health insurance coverage for birth control.
Religious freedom is about fairness. It means we don’t treat people differently because their beliefs are different from ours. It isn’t fair to deny women access to vital healthcare—a benefit guaranteed by law. Stripping insurance coverage for birth control is nothing more than discrimination.
The Affordable Care Act (ACA) ensures that women have access to affordable and effective contraception, a huge advance for women’s health. The ACA’s requirement that most health insurance plans cover birth control, however, doesn’t apply to everyone: Churches and other houses of worship were always exempt from it. In addition, nonprofits, certain corporations, and universities that have religious objections could refuse to cover birth control in their employees’ and students’ health insurance plans if they objected in writing. Under what was called an “accommodation,” the government would then arrange for a third party to pay for and provide the coverage instead.
Remarkably, many entities have challenged this opt-out in court, insisting that the mere act of requesting it violates their religious freedom. But Americans United has been fighting back. We represent students in one of the cases, brought by the University of Notre Dame. This is the only case in which women whose coverage is at risk are directly involved.
But today, in a move to please the religious fundamentalist leaders who remain the most vocal segment of Trump’s shrinking base, the administration will allow discrimination against women under the guise of religious freedom. The new regulation allows any for-profit corporation, university, or nonprofit institution to cite religion to deny insurance coverage for contraception to its employees and students. In addition to attacking women’s healthcare, the administration has promised even more policies like this. LGBTQ people, women, religious minorities, nontheists, and almost everyone else will face harm—all to appease these fundamentalist leaders.
Religious freedom is a fundamental American value. So is the right to make decisions for yourself about your own health care. The Trump administration’s proposed rule, however, betrays both. Employers and universities should not be able to use religion as an excuse to dictate their employees’ or students’ healthcare choices.
Decisions about women’s healthcare should be left to women—not their employers or universities. Discrimination disguised as “religious freedom” is still discrimination.
Without coverage, countless women will lose access to basic, critical healthcare because many of the most effective methods of contraception have expensive up-front costs. For example, women who don’t have insurance coverage may have to pay up to $1,000 for an IUD. For students or women who are living on minimum wage, losing coverage for birth control means that they probably won’t be able to afford it anymore.
We’re not going to let the Trump administration trample on religious freedom and women’s freedom to make their own healthcare choices. We have already told a court that the leaked draft of these regulations (which wasn’t really different from today’s final version) would harm the University of Notre Dame students we represent. And we will continue to fight in court to make sure these students and all women have affordable, seamless access to contraception. Religious freedom and women’s health and equality are at stake.