The XX Factor

Obama Administration Denies Contraception Exemption to Religion-Affiliated Employers

Kathleen Sebelius.
Health and Human Services head Kathleen Sebelius

Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

After the Obama administration’s incarnation of the HHS threw pro-choicers under the bus with its overrule of the FDA’s decision to make Plan B emergency contraception available over the counter with no age restrictions, hopes were low that the department would do the right thing when it came to religious-right demands for broad exceptions to the new HHS requirement that contraception be covered without a co-pay by insurance companies. The right wanted the religious exemption, which currently only covers religious employers who are basically working ministry, to include any organization that had a religious affiliation. Today, the administration issued its decision: It’s sticking to the regulations as currently written, and not expanding the exemptions.

This is no small deal. Right now, the exceptions mainly cover people who work for churches and not much else. The exemptions that were demanded would include, among other employers, religiously affiliated universities and hospitals, even though those organizations are there to serve the general public and not just their narrow congregations. (And subsequently benefit from federal spending on education and health care.) Since these kinds of organizations are often Catholic-affiliated, the exemptions had the potential to exclude not a small number of women from full coverage.

This ruling is consistent with other federal law. The EEOC recognizes the right to have contraception covered in the same way other drugs are by insurance companies, and federal judges have upheld that decision. The problem is that the EEOC can’t do anything unless it receives a complaint, and most women are unaware that they have rights, and even if they are aware, they fear retaliation from their employers if they push on this issue. The new regulations from the HHS have more teeth, which is why so many anti-choice groups were fighting them. Additionally, the new regulations require that contraception be offered with no co-pay. Sex-phobic employers could previously discourage contraception use by simply having high co-pays for contraception; that won’t be possible any longer.

It’s worth remembering that while most people think of hormonal contraception when they think of “free birth control” under the new regulations, these regulations also cover sterilization and IUDs. In August, I covered this facet of the new regulations for Slate, but a quick recap: Since getting an IUD can cost a cool grand without insurance coverage, the device is prohibitively expensive (though it’s the cheapest reversible form of contraception in the aggregate). That price will now be free to insured women. Even if they work for a Catholic hospital, though they’ll have to go to a non-Catholic service provider to actually get their IUD inserted.