Commentary Contraception

The Aftermath of ‘Hobby Lobby’: Multiple Attacks on Contraception Access

Amanda Marcotte

Suing to keep grown daughters from accessing contraception, or to keep employees from having coverage for contraception from somewhere besides the health-care plan you offer? Conservatives are getting aggressive in arguing they have a right to directly interfere with your ability to get contraception, and they may win.

Read more of our coverage on challenges to the Affordable Care Act’s birth control benefit here.

The official anti-choice line when objecting to the birth control benefit in the Affordable Care Act is “religious freedom.” It’s always been a transparent lie, particularly since the actual objection, trotted out in right-wing media sources like Rush Limbaugh’s show, has always been about how women shouldn’t be having sex in the first place. But recent events confirm, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the objections have nothing to do with religious freedom and everything to do with the belief that women should not be allowed to make their own decisions when it comes to sexual and reproductive health.

The first story is kind of a stunner. State Rep. Paul Wieland (R-MO), a vehemently anti-choice legislator from Missouri, is suing the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to prevent his daughters, two of whom are legal adults, from having access to the Affordable Care Act’s contraception benefit. Under the health-care reform law, young adults can be covered until age 26 on their parent’s health-care plans (though there’s no requirement that they have to be). Rep. Wieland’s argument is that because of this, he has a right to try to control the private medical decisions of his adult daughters.

There’s been no real attempt on the right to make this story about anything but the argument that parents have a right to interfere with the private sexual and reproductive health decisions of daughters, even grown daughters. Timothy Belz of the Thomas More Society, for instance, argued that contraception coverage is “as though the federal government had passed an edict that said that parents must provide a stocked unlocked liquor cabinet in their house whenever they’re away for their minor and adult daughters to use.”

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The casual equation of a medication that prevents a serious medical condition—pregnancy—with liquor gives away the game here. What’s going on here is nothing but a bunch of moralizing combined with the belief that women are never really full-grown adults but are simply wards of their parents until their custody can be transferred to husbands.

But beyond that, the argument here is also false, as are all other claims that contraception coverage amounts to “buying” contraception for someone else. The parents aren’t buying the contraception. They are paying for an insurance plan, and the insurance company pays for the contraception—if you want it. A better analogy would be buying your daughter a house which she, since it’s a gift, now owns, and then calling the police on her if she has a gentleman caller over, arguing that because you gave her something, the government should enforce your desires about how she uses it.

Indeed, this is why Wieland lost his case in district court: because the judges were uneasy with the idea of the government trying to use its power to enforce parental authority over grown adults. Belz argued, however, “Well, we all have high hopes for our kids, that is true. We all expect and want them to obey us, they don’t always.” This suggests that parental desire to have adult daughters who are virgins trumps adult daughters’ own right to control their bodies.

Of course if Wieland is so upset over this, he could simply refuse to cover his daughters on his insurance. But that was also true of Hobby Lobby—the closely held corporation could have refused to offer insurance altogether and not received a tax break instead. The refusal to even acknowledge that alternative demonstrates that this is not about its religious “conscience,” but about trying to manipulate the law and the political controversies over Obamacare to achieve the real goal, which is taking power away from women and giving it to employers, parents, husbands, and schools: Anyone but the women themselves.

You don’t need a keen legal mind to realize that, prior to the decision in Hobby Lobby v. Burwell, it was generally understood that once you transferred possession of something—such as a house, a car, a pair of pants, or a health insurance plan—over to someone else, it belonged to that person and not you, and the current owner got to decide what to do with it, not the former owner. For instance, you may buy your daughter a car and ask her not to use the seatbelt. You may even refuse to give her a car if you are afraid she’ll buckle up. But what you can’t do is demand that the government make an exception to its mandatory seatbelt rules so you can remove her seatbelt because you’re afraid she’ll be tempted to use it.

But now the Supreme Court has signaled that they are eager to make an exception to this long-standing legal idea when it comes to women’s bodies, allowing others to make really bold claims about their right to stop you from getting care from your own plan or even from one offered by the government.

The fact that conservatives feel the court is going to offer them the right to stand between women and contraception is evidenced by the latest machinations in the fight to make sure employers don’t offer birth control coverage. The administration is offering a compromise through which those employers don’t have to offer the birth control coverage in their own plans, but they have to allow women to go elsewhere for the coverage, in this case to the insurance companies themselves. It’s the equivalent of saying, “OK, you don’t have to provide an office parking lot, but you can’t prevent them from parking in this public lot we’ve built next door.”

But the Little Sisters of the Poor, one of the groups suing to prevent employees from accessing contraception, has rejected this plan. It’s become painfully clear at this point that the Little Sisters will accept no other answer besides giving them permission to cut off any and all contraception coverage that women might get from anyone. They won’t pay for it, but they won’t allow anyone else to pay for it. It’s the equivalent of arguing that the government is obliged to shut down the public lot because you are trying to force all your employees to walk to work and the government services are interfering with that.

These arguments are all ridiculous, but so were the arguments in Hobby Lobby. The reason conservatives are pushing forward is they believe they have a Supreme Court that will accept any pretzel logic so long as it means that fewer women get contraception. Unfortunately, the Roberts Court hasn’t given them any reason to doubt that’s exactly what’s going on.

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