By Olivia Kingree
On October 6, the Trump administration, in an effort to strengthen religious freedom, introduced new policies that will allow employers to avoid covering their employees’ birth control costs. These policies came merely three days after the House of Representatives voted to approve a bill that would ban abortions taking place after 20 weeks of pregnancy.
Currently, over 55 million women in the U.S. do not have to pay copayments for their birth control prescriptions. According to The New York Times, these controversial new policies could leave hundreds of thousands of women without coverage towards contraceptive costs.
While supporters argue that the new policy will protect religious rights, others claim that it is both illegal and discriminatory. Washington’s state attorney, Bob Ferguson, sued to block the policy on the basis that it violates the First Amendment (“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion”), as it forces individuals to comply with religious rules that they may or may not agree with. His lawsuit also claimed that the policy violates the Equal Protection Clause in the Fifth Amendment, as it disproportionately impacts women employees.
On the other hand, religious organizations, including an order of Roman Catholic nuns, have come out in support of the policy, which they believe will protect their religious freedom.
According to the New York Times, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions recently instructed federal prosecutors “to take the position in court that workers, employers and organizations may claim broad exemptions from nondiscrimination laws on the basis of religious objections.” These new directives were a reinterpretation of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which stated that the U.S. government could only minimally limit religious freedom for “compelling” reasons.
Liberal advocacy groups foresee consequences to this reinterpretation of religious rights, according to the New York Times. They said that, under the new policies, there would be little preventing employers from firing, for example, an unmarried woman who becomes pregnant.
Jordan Aussicker (’20) said, “many women use birth control for reasons other than to prevent pregnancy, including treating symptoms of Polycystic Ovary Syndrome and endometriosis,” commenting on how she found the new policy to be discriminatory towards women, and that it is important for lawmakers to consider that
In another recent ruling related to pregnancy and women’s health, the House of Representatives passed a bill on Tuesday, October 3 that would ban abortions that take place after 20 weeks of pregnancy. Trent Franks, a republican representative from Arizona, sponsored the bill, called the “Pain Capable Unborn Child Protection Act,” which introduced a possible fine or jail sentence on doctors who perform an abortion after 20 weeks.
The bill contains exceptions in cases of incest, rape or if necessary to save the life of the woman. However, any of these late-term abortions must take place in the presence of a physician trained in neonatal resuscitation and “only in the manner which, in reasonable medical judgment, provides the best opportunity for the unborn child to survive.”
Anti-abortion activists supported the bill, citing scientific research that suggests that fetuses older than 20 weeks are capable of feeling pain. However, according to the Washington Post, “the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists has not endorsed those findings.”
Advocates for women’s health, including Planned Parenthood, have come out against these new measures that threaten both abortions after 20 weeks and access to birth control. Their website contained a list of objections to the proposed 20-week abortion ban which called it “unconstitutional” and said that “20-week bans are part of an agenda to ban all abortion. Anti-abortion politicians in congress and in state legislatures are pushing their agenda, bit by bit, to ultimately outlaw abortion completely.”