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Court of Public Opinion Weighs Trump’s Birth Control Benefit Rollback

Christine Grimaldi

“Today, hundreds of thousands of people across the country made it known that women will wholeheartedly challenge any infringement on our rights."

Public comments on the Trump administration’s undermining of widely guaranteed access to contraception without a co-pay poured into the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) by Tuesday’s deadline.

The Trump administration in October targeted the Affordable Care Act’s popular birth control benefit in a move escalating its regulatory war on women’s health-care benefits. With virulently anti-choice HHS officials at the helm, the administration provided religious and moral cover for any employer or university to opt out of covering contraception in their health insurance offerings, at best leaving people on the hook for the cost of the co-pay and at worst, the cost of the medication or device itself. The price tags for common contraceptive methods range from up to $50 per month for birth control pills to more than $1,000 for an intrauterine device (IUD), according to a Planned Parenthood Federation of America guide.

The religious and moral exemptions took effect immediately under what’s known in the federal policy arena as “interim final rules.” But federal law still obligated the administration to solicit comments from the general public, including the 62.4 million cisgender women and untold number of transgender and gender nonconforming people who rely on the birth control benefit.

On regulations.gov, the religious exemption rule logged 44,411 comments and the moral exemption rule, a type of religious imposition measure, received 44,240 comments by the end of Tuesday. A preliminary search revealed thousands of comments for and against the birth control benefit. Many appeared to have been driven by advocacy groups, using similar templates for people to plead their case.

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More than 8,500 comments on the religious exemption argued that “birth control is basic health care—yet we know that before the Affordable Care Act guaranteed insurance coverage and eliminated out-of-pocket costs for birth control, some of the most effective forms of birth control cost as much as $1,000 upfront. And even co-pays as low as $6 kept some women from obtaining birth control.”

“By allowing employers and universities to deprive women of critical birth control coverage, these rules threaten women’s health and discriminate against women,” the comments said.

To the contrary, 11,180 anti-choice comments on the religious exemption claimed that contraceptives “impair the healthy condition known as fertility” and falsely characterized them as so-called abortifacients.

The majority of the general public, across party lines and various polls, consistently support Obamacare’s birth control benefit. A new PerryUndem survey found that 82 percent of those in the United States, including Republicans, Trump supporters, and those who regularly attend religious services, believe that “women should be able to get birth control coverage through their health insurance, even if their boss morally disagrees with the idea of birth control.”

Rewire in October reported on reproductive rights advocates’ efforts to raise awareness about the comment period. Advocacy groups partnered under the “Keep Birth Control Copay Free” campaign to provide a comment portal and template for people to submit comments directly to HHS.

The comments would be important to build their legal challenges to the GOP’s birth control benefit rollback, advocates told Rewire. The American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Reproductive Rights (CRR) jointly filed suit against the administration, as have the National Women’s Law Center and Americans United for Separation of Church and State in another pending case.

More than a dozen advocacy groups headed to HHS headquarters on Tuesday morning to hand deliver 500,000-plus comments.

“Today, hundreds of thousands of people across the country made it known that women will wholeheartedly challenge any infringement on our rights,” CRR President and CEO Nancy Northup said in a press release.

Dawn Laguens, executive vice president of Planned Parenthood Action Fund, echoed that sentiment.

“Over half a million people have sent a clear message to the Trump administration: They will not stand for attacks on women’s health care that will take America backwards,” Laguens said in a statement. “Today, more women graduate, lead, and innovate than at any point in our history, and that’s true for one very important reason—access to birth control.”

Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), an outspoken reproductive health-care advocate on Capitol Hill, led 36 of her fellow Democrats in the U.S. Senate in sending their own message to HHS.

“By instituting broad exemptions and no guarantee that women have another way to get coverage, these IFRs [interim final rules] would undermine access to comprehensive birth control,” they said in a letter. “Rather than taking yet another destructive action to undermine health care, the Trump Administration should rescind these IFRs in their entirety.”

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