Coverage controversies

Employers should not be able to deny employees contraception or abortion coverage

Two Catholic California universities, Loyola Marymount and Santa Clara, planned to drop abortion coverage from their employees’ health insurance plans in an effort to “adhere to Catholic teachings,” according to Inside Higher Ed. The state has now intervened, sending letters to insurance companies instructing them not to cooperate with the universities’ plans. According to a California law passed in 1975, insurance companies cannot discriminate against women who want to have abortions.

This intervention comes only two months after the Supreme Court’s decision on Burwell vs. Hobby Lobby, which granted companies the right to refuse to cover birth control in their health insurance plans because of religion-based objections. Hobby Lobby’s claim — that providing contraception coverage goes against their religious beliefs — is similar to Loyola Marymount’s and Santa Clara’s claims about abortion coverage. And since the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Hobby Lobby, it is conceivable that the colleges could challenge the California law cited in the state’s letters to the insurance companies.

With the implementation of the Affordable Care Act and the simultaneous resistance against it, women’s reproductive rights have clashed with claims of the right to religious freedom. This conflict has affected women employed by all kinds of businesses, including those working at institutions of higher education.

As with the matter of same-sex partner benefits — currently a contentious issue at many universities — denying certain health care procedures to female employees can create a sense of alienation and inequality within an institution of higher education. Denying such coverage hurts a university’s competitiveness. A female professor may not want to work at an institution that would limit her reproductive health care options, as a gay or lesbian professor may not want to work at an institution that would not allow his or her partner also to receive health care coverage. Such decisions would likely limit the diversity of faculty, and therefore limit the perspectives students get from their educational experiences.

Though Catholic institutions such as Loyola Marymount and Santa Clara argue providing abortion coverage violates their religious beliefs, laws allowing institutions to refuse coverage tip the balance of power unfairly toward employers and leave employees in especially vulnerable positions. While individual free practice of religion should still be protected, to grant religious rights to entire businesses or universities allows an imbalance of power that opens the door for even more denial of vital health care coverage on religious grounds.

As Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg pointed out in her dissent from the Hobby Lobby ruling, Jehovah’s witnesses have religious objections to blood transfusions, and certain Muslims, Jews and Hindus object to medications derived from pigs. Now that one objection has been sanctioned, business owners of these other religions could object to these other kinds of medical coverage.

The state of California is right to stand up for the female employees of its universities, and hopefully will fight to defend its law prohibiting sex discrimination if it is challenged. Such safeguards are necessary to protect women’s health care, and in turn, protect equality.

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