Contributed by Annamarya
This week has seen a tremendous victory for women’s right to health care. On Monday, the US Department of Health and Human Services released new guidelines under the Affordable Care Act that require new health insurance plans to include FREE access to birth control and women’s preventive services. Insurance companies’ inclusion of these services, without cost-sharing, must happen by August 1, 2012.
According to Metro, annual gynecological visits, well-woman visits, supplies, counseling and support for breast-feeding, STI counseling and domestic violence screening will be available sans co-payment, co-insurance or deductible come next year’s August 1 deadline. Plans are also mandated to cover the costs of FDA-approved contraception (such as pills, patch, and IUD) and contraceptive counseling, HPV (human papillomavirus), HIV and gestational diabetes screenings, and DNA testing for women age 30 and older. It goes without saying these new requirements, which were recommended by the Institute of Medicine, are an absolute necessity for women, particularly during this current economic climate that is affecting women more severely than any other group–as The Daily Femme has reported, 90 percent of the 1.3 million jobs gained during the US economic recovery went to men, with nearly half of employed women living paycheck-to-paycheck and 80 percent of low income women deeply impacted by the recession. Having free access to preventive and contraceptive care will allow women of all stripes to take care of their well-being without financial stress, and gives them control over their body and reproductive choices, thus allowing them to living longer, healthier and fulfilling lives not defined by archaic and oppressive standards–and that is a right everyone is entitled to.
But, of course, this much-needed, historical step in the right direction for women’s health comes with a possible thorny refusal clause. According to the National Organization for Women, the administration also released a HHS-approved amendment allowing religious institutions offering employees health care the chance to opt out of the free contraception services requirement. NOW has sent a letter to HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius speaking out against “so-called refusal or conscience clauses to undermine women’s access to birth control,” and NOW President Terry O’Neill has stated “The U.S. Constitution guarantees freedom of religion and freedom from being forced to observe any particular religious dictate…It would be a tragedy if millions of women were denied affordable access to contraception because HHS is ready to give in to a tiny minority of religious extremists who oppose birth control.”
Unfortunately, religious exemptions are a slippery slope. While women should not be denied accessed to health care, the First Amendment also protects religious institutions from adopting policies they are not in agreement with (freedom of religion is a two-way street, even if certain situations seem unfair). If religious institutions are forced to adopt this new policy, there is a high possibility of a lawsuit challenging its constitutionality, and a higher possibility that the courts would rule in their favor. So how do we circumvent this? It’s hard to find a easily definable or agreeable solution but a free government-funded plan covering these new requirements for employees of religious institutions who lack access to these services through their employer but want the option could be developed. It may be a difficult, potentially costly move, however, O’Neill is right–every women should have access to contraceptives and preventive care–so HHS needs to find a way to uphold the Constitution as well as the rights of women.