The Trump administration is progressing in its efforts to limit women’s control over their reproductive cycle. Two days after a bill to ban abortion later than the 20th week of pregnancy passed in the Republican-led House of Representatives, the administration has curtailed women’s access to free contraception.
Under president Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act, health insurance policies must fully cover all methods of birth control approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), including contraceptive pills, diaphragms, and implants. The only exemption is for insurance provided by a “religious employer,” defined as a non-profit that has religious education as its main purpose and employs and serves mostly people who agree with its religious beliefs.
New regulations (pdf), published today on Oct. 6 in the Federal Register and effective immediately, expand this exemption by allowing any employer to refuse to offer birth-control coverage on religious grounds. “No American should be forced to violate his or her own conscience in order to abide by the laws and regulations governing our healthcare system,” said Department of Health and Human Services press secretary Caitlin Oakley in a statement sent to Quartz.
Among other legal precedents, the new regulation cites the 2014 Supreme Court case brought by Hobby Lobby, an arts-and-crafts store, which ruled that federal religious freedom laws protected certain types of private companies from having to pay for insurance coverage for contraception. It also cites a 2015 federal court order (pdf) that prevented the Obama administration from enforcing the birth-control mandate against the pro-life organization March for Life.
The text published in Federal Register also questions whether providing free birth control in fact prevents unwanted pregnancies (p. 45-47) or reduces abortions. However, several studies show that it does. The Guttmacher Institute, a research firm focused on sexual and reproductive health and rights, has found that even a slight increase in access to birth control causes a significant drop in unwanted pregnancies. According to another Guttmacher study, 62% of US women of reproductive age currently use some form of contraception, and over 99% will use it at least once in their lifetimes.
“Birth control is the key to our ability to stay healthy, take care of our planned families, and contribute to our communities and society,” said Ilyse Hogue, the president of pro-choice advocacy NARAL, in a statement. She added that “giving our bosses decision-making power over whether and which birth control we can have goes the extra mile to be destructive and demeaning.”
These rules make good on a promise Trump made to the Catholic organization Little Sisters of the Poor in May, when he signed an executive order to protect religious freedom. The rules were published on the same day attorney general Jeff Sessions instructed (pdf) that the Department of Justice interpret religious-freedom laws as protecting organizations, not just individuals.
The new rules go into effect today (Oct. 6). Organizations that want to stop including birth control in insurance coverage can begin doing so immediately. Employees can also ask for their insurance to exclude birth control, even if their employer’s general policy is to cover it.