Last May, President Donald Trump entertained an audience of preachers and pastors from across the nation in the White House Rose Garden as he vowed to protect their fundamental rights to religious liberty. After years of perceived oppression from the Obama administration, Trump declared that he was “giving churches their voices back.”
When it comes to executive action, what does it mean to “restore” the religious liberty that so many American conservatives claim is under attack? The Trump administration has made it clear over the course of the past few months that this restoration will legalize discrimination based on gender, sexual orientation, and gender identity. The latest move in President Trump’s series of blows to women’s reproductive rights came in a national roll back on contraception coverage.
The Affordable Care Act was ordered under the Obama administration to be interpreted as a strict contraception-coverage mandate. Accordingly, since 2012, the Department of Justice prosecutors and agencies have not recognized a right for employers to deny coverage to women on the basis of religious objection. The concept that an insurer must cover its employees’ basic healthcare costs is not a radical one–and the Obama administration recognized that access to affordable contraception is among the most core and ubiquitous health needs of American women. And data corroborates this holding: because of the contraception coverage mandate, over 55 million women have access to copay-free contraception.
But as of last week, things may change for these tens of millions of women. Attorney General Jeff Sessions ordered the Department of Health and Human Services, with special direction from the President, to allow a wide range of employers to refuse contraceptive coverage for women based on religious misgivings. The new rules make it possible to revoke contraception from women employed by non-profits and for-profits—even those that are publicly traded. Notably, the rule would allow institutions of higher learning like Duke to refuse to insure their own students. Perhaps even more disconcerting is that these employers and insurance companies will not have to notify any government agency of their refusal to provide coverage; rather, they are able to unilaterally rip this basic health need from the hands of women across the country.
A rollback of this size is sure to impact not just the bodies and budgets of women, but the number of abortions likely to occur. If the idea behind this exemptionary rule is to address and allow for the religious freedom of Americans who consider life to start at the very moment of conception, then the impacts of this policy are likely to subvert the very ideals to which they appeal. According to the Guttmacher Institute, about 42 percent of unintended pregnancies end in abortion; nearly half of the unwanted pregnancies caused by a lack of access to affordable contraception will inevitably lead to the very procedure that religious activists so vehemently oppose: abortion.
The 55 million women covered by the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate are all parts of the largest reduction in abortion rates in American history: from 2011 to 2014, the national abortion rate fell by 14 percent. Contraception and healthy access to reproductive services allow women to prevent unwanted pregnancies before they even have a chance to end in abortion. For those who care about preventing the 700,000 abortions that occur annually, the contraceptive coverage mandate should be considered a vital tool, not an enemy. People have been having unprotected sex since the dawn of time, and they will continue to do so as long as they have functioning libidos. The only foolproof way to stop abortion, then, is to grant women their basic right to medical care that allows them to plan pregnancies on their own timelines.
Not only does the Trump mandate represent an illogical policy that will actually increase the national rate of abortion, but it also symbolizes an inherent restriction of the right to health. The new roll back will levy costs discriminatorily on women, as they are burdened with the price of expensive pills, IUDs, and other contraceptive devices that are essential to their daily wellbeing. In a liberal democracy such as the United States, it is imperative to ask ourselves whether or not we are comfortable with the financial and medical oppression of 50 percent of our citizens. Resoundingly, that answer is no: women should not be put at a disadvantage because of the biological functions of their bodies.
These costs levied on women will be absorbed not just by individuals, but by taxpayers as a whole. Unwanted pregnancies are more likely to lack prenatal care and suffer from delivery complications, and regardless of whether they are carried to term or aborted, these pregnancies represent a $21 billion annual strain on American taxpayers. Not only are these costs reflected in tax expenses, but also in the rising costs of care across the country as hospitals assume the debts of uninsured women who do not have the financial capacity to pay for their procedures.
President Donald Trump argues that his roll back on contraceptive coverage will advance the goals of the religious right and save employers money. Yet, in reality, his rules do neither. And, more importantly, this subversion of the right to contraception threatens to undermine the status of women as human beings deserving of equal protection under the law.