On Monday, the Supreme Court of the United States decided to send the Zubik v. Burwell case that was heard earlier this spring back to the lower courts. This matters to women across the United States, and here’s why.
Zubik v. Burwell is a challenge to the Affordable Care Act (ACA) by religious non-profits, including religiously affiliated universities and colleges. While churches are already exempt from providing insurance coverage for contraception, under this challenge these non-profits and schools would not be required to provide coverage, either. This would leave thousands of women without access to free contraception. Earlier this year, Population Connection and Population Connection Action Fund joined hundreds of activists to call on the Supreme Court to stand with women, but this week the court decided to punt the case.
For women across the country, the announcement comes as a disappointment. The case presented a chance for the Court to reject the idea that religious freedom can be used as pretext to deny women basic health care and autonomy over their own bodies. It could have been a step towards reinforcing the fact that women’s access to contraception and other health care services should not be dependent on the opinions and beliefs of their employers. The outcome of this case impacts hundreds of thousands of women who work in religiously-affiliated nonprofits, including more than 700,000 full-time and part-time workers employed by Catholic hospitals around the country.
For many women, accessing contraception means much more than preventing pregnancy. Contraception helps countless women battle endometriosis, ovarian cysts, and the intolerable symptoms of menstruation. In a situation where a woman is raped on her college campus, access to emergency contraception could be lifesaving. A woman should be able to use contraception for whatever purposes her and her doctor believe are useful, but using religious freedom as an excuse to take away potentially lifesaving healthcare is even more inexcusable.
“It’s disappointing and, frankly, disturbing that the Supreme Court didn’t utterly reject the idea that religious freedom includes the right to deny basic health care and autonomy to others,” our Senior Vice President for Media and Government Relations, Brian Dixon, said in a statement regarding the Court’s decision.
The lack of a decision by the Supreme Court signals another problem, as well. For months our Senate has refused to make a decision about President Obama’s nominees for the highest court, and with a split court it is possible women’s rights will be in a limbo yet again. Since the death of Justice Scalia the Court has struggled to come to comprehensive decisions, which could play out again in the upcoming decision on TRAP laws in Whole Women’s Health vs. Hellerstedt.
For Zubik v. Burwell, the good news is that the lower courts still have the opportunity to rule for the government – and women – to ensure that all women have access to contraceptive coverage under their health insurance plans. Considering the large majority of the circuit courts have upheld birth control access in the past, we are confident that access to contraception will ultimately be protected, and that women will maintain the right to make their own healthcare decisions.