President Donald Trump is continuing his assault on the Affordable Care Act, and women's health care is the latest casualty. The Trump administration issued new rules last year that are scheduled to take effect this month and would allow more employers to deny birth control coverage through their health plans. The rules are billed as "conscience protections" for employers with religious or moral objections to contraceptives, but where is the morality in denying millions of women basic health care?
The rules would expand on a U.S. Supreme Court ruling regarding the Affordable Care Act's mandate that all preventive health care be covered in private health plans free of charge. The Obama administration deemed birth control a preventive service, while providing exemptions for religious organizations. The Supreme Court, in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, said closely held private corporations also should not be required to provide birth control access if it violates their religious convictions. The Trump administration keeps trying to expand that exempton.
The new rules would allow more entities to claim exemptions on religious grounds, under the illogical notion that a corporation can have religious beliefs. They also would let nonprofit organizations and small businesses claim non-religious moral convictions in denying birth control coverage. These rules aren't upholding the constitutional right to freedom of religion — they're contorting it by making a woman's access to health care subject to the religious beliefs of her employer. That also amounts to blatant sex discrimination.
The rules have been challenged in lawsuits and are similar to those released by the administration in 2017 that have been on hold because of a nationwide injunction. Even the administration's own defenses acknowledge the harm to women. "A woman who loses coverage of her chosen contraceptive method through her employer may still have access to such coverage through a spouse's plan," the Justice Department said in a brief. "Or she may otherwise be able to pay out of pocket for contraceptive services." Officials also tried to mitigate the impact of the rule change, claiming that "at most" 120,000 women would be affected. What number would be too many to stop this unfairness?
The administration also has proposed that women whose employers don't provide birth control be allowed to obtain it from federally funded family planning clinics for low-income people. Those clinics already struggle to keep up with demand and never have enough money. Requiring them to spread their dollars even further to subsidize these new exemptions is an unnecessary drain on scarce public money. And this proposal comes with other bitter pills, including new restrictions and requirements on clinics that provide abortions.
By making it easier for employers to deny birth control coverage, the Trump administration would be making it harder for women to access basic health care and family planning measures. Religious organizations already enjoyed reasonable accommodations for opting not to provide contraceptives. The beliefs of CEOs, company presidents and business owners should be irrelevant beyond their own families. Instead they are being elevated above the health needs of women.