Why opponents of no-cost birth control will fail

By Thomas Poulos ‘11

I was pleased to read that the Blunt Bill didn’t pass through the Senate, but I know that the attacks on women’s rights and affordable health care will continue. As so often happens in reproductive health politics, women’s health has been pitted against religion. The Blunt Bill was doomed from the beginning because it was far too broad, allowing employers to deny coverage on the grounds that it violates their religious or moral beliefs. This would have led to unscrupulous claims of these violations and an outright attack on women and minorities (especially LBGTQ individuals). Opponents of the no-cost birth control measure will undoubtedly recognize their mistake and draft a new bill that focuses more on how no-cost birth control specifically violates widespread religious beliefs. They will invoke the religious liberty argument, similar to the argument claimed by opponents of the individual mandate in the Affordable Care Act. Rather than simply offering a passionate argument for the importance of the no-cost birth control, which will ultimately be met by an equally passionate argument for the importance of religious liberty, I will explain how the religious liberty argument is invalid in three specific ways. First, the practical implausibility of retaining complete religious and individual liberty; next, large religious institutions such as certain schools and hospitals employee people with diverse beliefs and thus cannot subject them to the institution’s beliefs; and finally, no-cost birth control is in fact tantamount to securing individual liberty by empowering women to have control over their bodies and ultimately their lives. A long-held American maxim that has its roots in John Locke’s philosophy is that individuals should be able to do as they please as long as it doesn’t harm anyone else. Opponents of the no-cost birth control argument claim that it violates this maxim. However, it is often necessary to sacrifice some individual liberties in order to secure another value, such as equality or efficiency. The Equal Opportunity Act takes an employer’s individual liberty away by preventing them from making a hiring decision based on a belief they may have regarding gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or otherwise. Based on similar logic, the Affordable Care Act requires individuals to purchase insurance because without a large pool of people to spread out risk, premiums for those who have health insurance would skyrocket and free-riding would continue. And the government now requires the health insurance plans that employer’s offer to cover birth control (this includes contraception, by the way) with no co-pays or deductibles. Why is it so hard to see how the no-cost birth control requirement—just like the Equal Opportunity Act and the individual mandate—is part of a historical trend whereby we as a society decide that sacrificing some liberty is worth the increase in equality and efficiency? The sad truth is that some people do not understand that birth control is a preventive health service (making care more efficient) and a basic health care service that is essential to women’s health (engendering equality). Unfortunately, this fact becomes clouded by false conceptions of sex and sexuality, an ignorance of the impact of sexism, and sexism itself. I’m confident, however, that the advocacy efforts of organizations such as Planned Parenthood and the individuals committed to their cause will help make people realize that no-cost birth control is another addition to the long list of accomplishments that have made our society more equal and more efficient. As mentioned earlier, the Equal Opportunity Act is considered a great accomplishment because of the advances it makes for equality. Those who oppose the no-cost birth control requirement probably don’t oppose the Equal Opportunity Act. This is paradoxical. Large religious institutions such as certain hospitals and schools employ plenty of people who are not of their religious affiliation. Therefore, the institution cannot opt out of a service that directly affects its diverse employees on the grounds that it violates the institution’s beliefs. Planned Parenthood favors an exemption law for smaller religious institutions such as churches because they are far more likely to employ a greater share of people who are in accordance with their beliefs. Even this is quite a compromise, given that 99% of all women, regardless of religious identity, report having used birth control at some point in their life. However, asking that any employer be able to opt out of offering health insurance plans on the grounds of any belief is discriminatory and a clear violation of what the Equal Opportunity Act stands for. My third point seeks to turn the religious liberty argument on its head by claiming that giving women affordable access to birth control is tantamount to creating a society with more individual liberty. Women still suffer from the repressive force of sexism—far too many women today are still forced into situations that they did not choose and that they do not want to be in. This includes rape, other forms of sexual abuse, unwanted pregnancies, streamlining women in certain “pink collar” occupations and more subtle pressures such as those regarding body image and social behavior. Although the no-cost birth control requirement will not solve all these problems, it will solve some. It will give all women who have health insurance the ability to choose when they want to get pregnant, to get early check-ups and prevent breast cancer and to use birth control in ways that will be beneficial to them (for example, to prevent ovarian cysts). Essentially, giving women no-cost access to preventive reproductive health services will help ameliorate the negative effects of sexism and give women the ability to choose better lives for themselves. Moreover, healthier and more empowered women means that half our population will be more productive members of the work force and cause less strain on the health care system (given the cost-effectiveness of preventive care). Clearly, the religious liberty argument is deeply flawed. Opponents of the no-cost birth control requirement will cite the constitution with incendiary rhetoric that will surely make many people’s blood boil. But before we allow our initial emotional reactions take place, let’s take a step back and think. Throughout our country’s history we’ve been willing to sacrifice small amounts of individual liberty to secure a more equitable society. Disallowing large religious employers to opt out of providing health insurance plans on moral grounds is not tantamount to a Communist Revolution. Breathe everybody. Furthermore, the Blunt Act undermines everything the Equal Opportunity Act stands for and discriminates against the many employees who don’t share the beliefs of the institution (which by the way is not an individual, so individual liberty isn’t really being threatened). Lastly, we must recognize that giving as many women as possible affordable access to reproductive health services combats sexism, improves the productivity of our workforce, and decreases our health care expenditures. The government does not require vasectomies or condoms (male birth control) but “protecting women” means providing them birth control where it sin’t provided for men. You see women need to be “taken care of”. We aren’t capable of seeing to our own pregnancy prevention/ and “reproductive needs”. We need someone bigger and stronger (like the gov’t or males paying into the insurance at higher rates to cover our additional benefits) to take care of us. We have a right to control our own bodies and have others pay for it. You see, it is simple we are second class citizens and need added protection and more stuff cause of our weakness and inability to fend for ourselves. I’m not sure why the big strong men don’t realize your job in taking care of us and our needs and wants? It is only right when we are incapable of taking care of ourselves. It disgusts me that men can’t see their role as providers and protectors and give us weak, vulnerable women a chance. Come on step up to the plate and offer to pay more in health insurance costs for us to have benefits/discounted BCPs! We are just women and need you to offset our costs and decisions so we can control our bodies.