Commentary: Contraceptive coverage should be the rule, not the exception

American Civil Liberties UnionAugust 29, 2011 

Far too often, government policies tend to be at odds with reality when it comes to women's reproductive health by ignoring the services that women need most. Which is why guidelines recently issued by the Department of Human Services requiring insurance coverage for contraception and other preventive services were so welcome. After all, virtually every woman of childbearing age practices some sort of contraception at some point.

Requiring coverage of FDA-approved contraceptives like birth control pills, implants and IUDs and other necessary preventive services would seem like a no-brainer. Unfortunately, when it comes to health care in America today, nothing is ever that simple.

Following the HHS announcement, some groups have objected to the contraception requirement on religious grounds. They want a wide range of employers to get a special exception so they can deny their employees birth control coverage. The HHS guidelines already propose to exempt churches, synagogues and other exclusively sectarian institutions. But critics of the policy say that's not enough.

These groups want special exceptions to allow any religiously-affiliated institution, including hospitals that employ people of all faiths, to deny its employees insurance for birth control. If the critics had their way, the HHS guidelines would be meaningless for hundreds of thousands of women, who would lose the ability to determine which health services are best for them and their families and instead could be beholden to the religious beliefs of their employers.

Consider that Catholic hospitals alone employ over half a million people. The effects of broadening the exception would be sweeping.

While everyone is free to make personal decisions regarding whether and when to use birth control, it is wrong for employers to force this decision on their employees by denying them access to essential health services.

This isn't the first time that religious groups have tried to impose their views on health policy. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops tried to have contraception excluded from the guidelines altogether, denying these benefits to all women. Currently, the bishops are pushing an even more extreme measure that could allow employers to refuse to provide coverage for any service they oppose, leaving health care coverage for thousands of people of all belief systems to the influence of one particular faith.

This is completely contrary to our values of both personal and religious freedom.

Women need, demand and utilize contraceptive services. This is the reality of women's health, and has been acknowledged and affirmed by the medical community and now by HHS. Those who oppose family planning cannot be permitted to allow their ideology to dictate others' health care. To do otherwise would mark a dismaying retreat from rationality in women's health policy.

ABOUT THE WRITER

Laura W. Murphy is the director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office. She can be reached via email at media@dcaclu.org.

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