Washington – To opponents of the Affordable Care Act, it’s a political victory, but to Connecticut women’s rights groups and its Democratic politicians, the Supreme Court decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby will erode a woman’s rights to contraception.
“We think it’s a deplorable decision because it creates a new regulatory body over women’s health care,” said Christine Palm, spokeswoman for the Permanent Commission on the Status of Women.
In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court agreed with retail store Hobby Lobby that the Religious Freedom and Restoration Act (RFRA) applies to the activities of closely-held corporations. This means that corporations with five or fewer majority shareholders have a right to be exempt from the ACA’s contraceptive coverage mandate and not be required to provide birth control under their employee insurance plans.
Hobby Lobby, a Christian-owned craft supply chain store, and Conestoga Wood Specialties Store, a Pennsylvania wood manufacturer owned by a family of Mennonites, challenged the contraception mandate on the basis that they found the morning after pill and IUD’s “morally objectionable” because they destroy fertilized eggs.
Conestoga Wood is a wholesaler that sells directly to cabinet manufacturers. But Hobby Lobby has a store in East Haven.
Palm said the court decided “the interest of corporations supersede the interest of individual women.”
Brie Johnston, vice president of public policy for the Connecticut chapter of the National Organization for Women, or NOW, called the decision “outrageous.”
“It removes the ability of an employee to manage her own body,” she said.
It was a landmark 1965 Supreme Court case from Connecticut, Griswold v. Connecticut, that established the right to privacy – and access to birth control – by overturning a state statute backed by the Catholic Church that prohibited any person from using “any drug, medicinal article or instrument for the purpose of preventing conception.”
Since then the Supreme Court has upheld women’s right to birth control and abortion based on the right to privacy. Government attitudes have changed so much since 1965 that contraceptive coverage was included in the basic benefits package required of insurers under the ACA.
After the Catholic Church and other religious organizations protested they would be forced to provide a service that was against their religion, the Obama administration exempted religious groups from the mandate.
With the Supreme Court’s decision, corporations can now also apply for an exception.
But the ruling was is not as far-reaching as it could have been.
It’s based on a religious freedom law rather than a broad constitutional right to exercise religion, and applies only to closely held corporations. It also leaves open the possibility that women working for those companies can get the disputed contraceptives from another source, such as the government or private insurers.
Despite the limitations, Johnston said the Supreme Court decision “still erodes the right of women to make their own choices” regarding health care.
Judy Tabar, president of New Haven-based Planned Parenthood of Southern New England, said “it is a deeply troubling decision” that would prevent some women, especially those in low wage jobs, from obtaining birth control.
“It is unbelievable that in 2014 we are still fighting about whether women should have access to birth control,” Tabar said.
Connecticut’s democratic politicians also deplored the decision.
“Today’s decision by the Supreme Court is a serious step backwards for women’s health and will negatively affect not just women, but their families as well,” said Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd District. “Women should be able to make their own health care decisions regardless of where they work and without interference from their bosses.”
Gov. Dannel Malloy said he “will review this decision and assess the impact it may have in Connecticut.”
“While we should all respect each other’s right to hold different positions based on religious beliefs, women should not be denied access to reproductive healthcare benefits due to the personal beliefs of their employer,” Malloy said. “Today’s decision from the Supreme Court is an affront to that very basic and fundamental idea. In our diverse society, it is unconscionable that the religious beliefs of a private, for-profit employer can dictate the kind of medical care that is available to an employee.”
Rep. Jim Himes, D-4th District said the decision “threatens women’s access to essential health care and marks a terrible step backward for women’s rights”
And Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said Congress should pass legislation that would reverse the Supreme Court’s decision.
“Religious liberty is about the right to practice your religion, not the right to impose your religion on your employees,” Blumenthal said.
Rep. Elizabeth Esty, D-5th District, also slammed the decision and said she intends “to work with my colleagues on legislation to reverse the Supreme Court’s misguided ruling to ensure basic protections for women’s health.”
But that’s not likely in a Congress with deep partisan divisions.
The justices have given ACA opponents their most significant political victory against the health care law, reinforcing their argument that the law and President Barack Obama are encroaching on Americans’ freedoms.
“We’ve long known what the Supreme Court made clear today: that the Obamacare…mandate violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which protects the religious liberty of all Americans, by forcing people to buy for others what they are morally and religiously opposed to,” said House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif. “The Supreme Court’s decision today is a victory for our Constitutional principles and the fundamental human right of religious liberty.”