Denying birth control isn’t about religious freedom, it’s about power
In early October, President Donald Trump’s administration shredded a 2012 Affordable Care Act provision that required health insurance providers to guarantee full birth control coverage. Whereas previously only a few types of organizations, like churches, could receive exemptions from the birth control mandate, the current policy allows a much broader scope of religiously affiliated institutions to opt out. The University of Notre Dame, for example, announced last week that the insurance plan they provide to students and university employees would no longer cover contraceptives.
Notre Dame’s argument, the same as the one offered by other religious organizations, is that the 2012 mandate forced them to act against their religious beliefs. This line of thought would suggest that the university was personally supplying birth control to students and faculty, which would certainly be a difficult situation for a religiously affiliated institution. From the university’s perspective, the latest policy shift has simply allowed them to remove themselves from a process with which they fundamental disagreed. In reality, Notre Dame has not removed itself from anything but rather inserted itself further into the personal lives of individual students and employees. The Affordable Care Act (ACA) provision established a work-around for institutions with religious objections to birth control, giving organizations the ability to provide contraceptive coverage via a third party, such as the insurance company itself. Notre Dame was one of the providers taking advantage of this exemption—in other words, the university wasn’t paying for birth control at all. Before last week, to say that Notre Dame’s involvement in students’ and faculty’s use of birth control was minimal would be an understatement. Now, the university is actively inhibiting access to contraceptives.
The university’s ‘religious liberty’ argument holds that simply allowing others to receive free birth control is an undue burden. Of course, those covered under the Notre Dame insurance plan can still buy birth control—but that cost is not insignificant. Is being forced to pay out of pocket for care that many others can get for free not also a burden? It’s one thing to feel that birth control is immoral and to live by that belief. It’s another to attempt to prevent others from making their own choice. Hopefully, Notre Dame will listen to its students, three of whom are currently suing to reverse the new exceptions to the ACA provision. However, a university should never have been in a position to determine anyone’s access to birth control in the first place.
Notre Dame, like many other large organizations, is in a position of power over its students and faculty, who can’t hope to match the wealth and resources of the university. The updated birth control rules further upset the balance of power between institution and individual. The new policy does not simply threaten individual liberties but also the freedom of women, specifically, and poor women in particular, who may not be able to afford birth control out of pocket. The 2012 mandate ensured that women had more control over their own bodies, while also eliminating a significant economic burden. The broader exceptions to the provision instituted by the Trump administration erases those gains for many women. By giving some employers the ability to dictate whether female employees can receive contraceptive coverage, the new rules expand the powers of few while curtailing the freedom of many.
The latest attack on women’s access to birth control is intrinsically linked to a political movement that is determined to maintain the social hierarchy of the United States, with rich, white, Christian men at the top—and everyone else at the bottom. To the current administration, “religious freedom” does not mean the right of individuals to practice their faith in peace. The religious freedom that the new birth control policy promotes, and that Notre Dame is exercising, is the freedom of the powerful to influence the lives of the less powerful. The current birth control debate is, at heart, about neither religion nor women’s rights. It is fundamentally about power and who has it. As a result, it will never be enough to challenge Notre Dame’s decision or even federal policy alone. As long as an ideology that refuses to regulate the powerful or aid the marginalized is in place, inequality will define American culture.