Nearly 50 years ago, then-Rep. George H.W. Bush of Texas called family planning a “public health matter” and pushed for the first federal measure to provide money for free birth control. Another Republican, President Nixon, signed that law and called for a national commitment to provide family planning services in the next five years “to all those who want them but cannot afford them.”
Not only has the nation not fulfilled that promise, the Trump administration has recently made it tougher to do so — undoing progress made under President Obama.
This month, federal judges in Pennsylvania and California issued orders temporarily blocking the Trump rules. And once again, basic preventive health care for women, which shouldn't have been controversial in the first place, is the subject of ferocious legal battles.
OPPOSING VIEW: New contraception rule is balanced
This latest round dates to 2012, when the Obama administration initially required most employers to provide free contraceptives to women through their health insurance coverage. The plan spurred controversy and litigation because of an unwise decision to include religiously affiliated universities, charities and others under the mandate to provide free contraception.
Many religious groups accepted an accommodation the administration offered, but about 100 filed suit. Those cases still aren't resolved.
To end the legal wrangling, all President Trump needed to do was exempt those religious groups and offer their employees a realistic alternative to get free contraception. He did neither.
Instead, his Health and Human Services Department opened a gaping hole in the mandate by allowing many employers and organizations to deny coverage not only based on religious beliefs, but also on their “moral objections.”
A moral exemption could be over just about anything. An employer could have "a sincerely held moral conviction that women do not have a place in the workplace," U.S. District Judge Wendy Beetlestone wrote in her Dec. 15 ruling. “It is difficult to comprehend a rule that does more to undermine the contraceptive mandate or that intrudes more into the lives of women.”
Employers do not even have to file their objection with the federal government. They can just end coverage. Federal officials estimated that about 31,700 women could be affected. The judge said the number may be “significantly higher.”
As the prestigious Institute of Medicine found, free contraception is an important part of preventive care for women. Many women use birth control to treat other medical conditions. Access to birth control prevents unintended pregnancies and by extension can prevent abortions, a goal shared by many of the religious groups that fought the mandate.
Trump’s decision could defuse lawsuits filed by religious groups. Good. But his ham-handed, broad-brush action has pushed the program right back into court. Fifty years, and this absurd battle rages on.
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