By: Laura Fitzgerald
Fem Dems Contributing Writer

Just last week, President Trump revealed his intentions to act upon yet another one of his many campaign promises: to repeal large provisions in the Affordable Care Act. After multiple failed attempts at creating a brand new nationwide policy for health care coverage, this Republican administration has resorted to cherry picking specific provisions of the ACA to repeal. Hence, representatives of this current administration indicated that access to birth control and contraceptives through employment is on the chopping block. The new rules released by the Health and Human Services Department create more avenues for employers to obtain an exemption from the contraceptive mandate that existed under the Affordable Care Act.

Shortly after the creation of the Affordable Care Act in 2010, President Obama added a mandate to the law that required female contraceptives to be covered by new insurance plans starting in 2012. Birth control medication and contraceptive devices were categorized as preventive care necessities that would be provided to patients without co-payments. An exemption from this contraceptive mandate existed for churches and houses of worship, although Christian hospitals, charities, and universities were still subjected to the requirement. While this drew criticism from Republican representatives, the Obama administration argued that covering such medications and devices were necessary preventive measures to lower the rates of unintended pregnancies and that specifically excluding birth control medications when other prescriptions are provided to employees is a form of discrimination based upon sex and religion.

The rules newly proposed by the Trump administration augment the types of employers that are eligible for an exemption from the contraceptive mandate on the basis of religious conscience. More nonprofit, for-profit, and higher educational institutions will be able to legally seek exemption, not to mention any individual employer who claims a religious conflict. By broadly widening the options for employer exemption, these new rules will significantly weaken the intent of the original mandate under the Obama administration, rolling back the protections and access to health care that President Obama granted female employees nationwide.

Spokespeople for President Trump have declared this a valiant action in the name of preserving the first amendment, more specifically, the freedom of religion. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-Wis) even declared last Friday “a landmark day for religious liberty”. This administration has been clear that its intention is to protect the religious beliefs of employers through this decision. Allowing employers the discretion of whether or not to cover a widely used medication will not act as a preservative of freedom, but rather as a free permit for discrimination.

It would behoove the decision-makers of this current administration to consider whether an employer identifying as a Christian Scientist has the right to deny health care benefits entirely to employees on the basis that it is contrary to his or her religious beliefs. Or perhaps if an employee is in need of a blood transfusion after an accident, would it be appropriate for their employer who identifies as a Jehovah’s Witness to deny medical coverage for the treatment? While some may view these examples as extreme, they are serious possibilities that could result from the current administration’s interpretation of religious freedom.

Our nation’s health care practices have historically lacked investment in preventive care, taking on a reactionary role rather than nipping medical conditions in the bud. America has a collective interest in health care for all; each and every citizen benefits from a society with less sickness. This vision is only possible if our physicians and insurance companies facilitate preventive care practices. Contraception absolutely falls under this category of care. By decreasing the amount of unintended pregnancies, access to birth control also contributes to more financial stability for families and healthier relationships for many. These medications also help remedy hormone imbalances and ovary irregularities, both of which can evolve into serious medical conditions if they go untreated.

Proponents of these new rules on employee health coverage may argue that female employees can simply go elsewhere for their contraceptive needs. Women, they argue, will still have the ability to take birth control medication if they pay out of pocket. While it is true that some women may still have the ability to afford this medication and continue to use it for its many functions, this will not be the case for all women that lose coverage. Employers who refuse to cover contraceptive medication through their provided health benefits are placing an undue burden on the shoulders of their female employees simply on the grounds that it would be on their religious conscious.

Freedom is the beacon often used to characterize American life, but our freedom is only possible in the presence of compromise and tolerance. Once one’s civil liberties are prioritized over others’, the integrity of this promise to freedom is squashed. Our first amendment is not only a protection, but a duty as well. In addition to enjoying the protection from persecution, Americans are obligated to respect the views of our friends, neighbors, and employees. Religious morals cannot possibly serve as factual information on which to create health care policies for the entire population of the United States. Enabling employers to place limitations on their employee’s access to health care on the grounds of religion is a serious overreach of the first amendment.

*I’ve written this piece as a reflection of my own opinion. It is not affiliated with my work for the California State Legislature.