On Monday, July 30, the United States Supreme Court ruled on a case that will have profound implications for healthcare, women’s rights and labor relations for some time to come. You probably heard about it, but that doesn’t mean we can’t take a closer look.
Several years ago, the administration and Congress passed a law attempting to reform our broken healthcare system. It’s by no means perfect, but the Affordable Care Act does increase access to healthcare for many who were previously shut out of the system. A portion of Americans screamed (and continue to scream) “socialism,” mostly due to the fact that the law represents the government helping the less fortunate. But that wasn’t only controversy. The ACA also includes mandates to expand preventative care for women. This does not require any out-of-pocket expenses for the patient, so long as she goes to an in-network provider. Included among these services are things like annual “well-woman” visits and age-appropriate reproductive care. The law recognizes that the needs of a woman entering her childbearing years can be different than the needs of a woman leaving that period in her life, and, while the list of services covered is fairly specific, it leaves many decisions in the hands of individual patients and their doctors. So far, so provocative—at least if you’re on the right.
For conservatives, it only gets worse from there. In addition to free mammograms and HPV testing, the ACA also includes a “birth control mandate,” which requires that all 20 FDA-approved methods of preventing pregnancy (only as prescribed by a doctor) be covered by insurance plans. Criticisms were swift and rampant, with FOX News commentators, tea partiers, Christian fundamentalists and republican lawmakers raging at the fact that the government seemed to be not only condoning, but actually encouraging—and subsidizing—female promiscuity.
Those trying to articulate the true purpose of the mandate—that women seeking to prevent pregnancy should no longer have to spend hundreds of dollars every year—were drowned out by hordes of right-wingers yelling about how women should have to pay for their own slutty decisions. Never mind that before the ACA, the extremely common birth control pills prescribed to me by my own doctor cost $125 per month out of pocket, as they were not covered by my insurance.
Soon, lawsuits began working their way through the courts as the war of words escalated. There were many aspects to debate—everything from how various means of contraception work to American corporate structures to the rights and responsibilities (moral and legal) of corporate shareholders. In March, cases involving three corporations owned by two individual families reached the Supreme Court. Both sides made their arguments, and then we waited.
In case you are too bewildered or angry to follow the news, what follows is my own analysis of the evidence and the outcome.
Under the Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores ruling, women employed by corporations objecting on religious grounds to a contraception mandate that includes ALL 20 the FDA-approved methods (including the four believed to induce abortion) must find alternate means of obtaining coverage. Let me be perfectly clear: the Court ruled that “closely held” corporations (those in which no more than five individuals control at least 51 percent shares) that have a religious beef with a particular contraceptive are not required to comply with a mandate that applies to all other for-profit, secular corporations. If that doesn’t seem so bad, keep in mind that “closely held corporations” actually account for about 90 percent of the companies in the US —running the gamut from local, family-owned businesses to Koch Industries. This is hardly a limited ruling, as these companies maintain about half of American private workforce.
I generally try to respect the opinions of those who hold beliefs that may differ from my own. However, in this instance, the highest court of the land decided to ignore the law of the land, handing down a decision that treats religious beliefs based neither in law or science as though they were legally sound. If that wasn’t bad enough, the ruling continues down the highway to hell that is corporate personhood. All of this was deftly rebutted by Justice Ginsburg in her epic dissent.
Ginsburg says, leaving absolutely nothing to the imagination:
Until this litigation, no decision of this Court recognized a for-profit corporation’s qualification for a religious exemption from a generally applicable law… The absence of such precedent is just what one would expect, for the exercise of religion is characteristic of natural persons, not artificially legal entities. As Chief Justice Marshall observed nearly two centuries ago, a corporation is “an artificial being, invisible, intangible, and existing only in contemplation of law.” Corporations, Justice Stevens more recently reminded, “have no conscience, no beliefs, no feelings, no thoughts, no desires. … Until today, religious exemptions had never been extended to any entity operation in ‘the commercial, profit-making world.’” The reason why is hardly obscure. Religious organizations exist to foster the interests of persons subscribing to the same religious faith. Not so of for-profit corporations. Workers who sustain the operations of those corporations commonly are not drawn from one religious community. Indeed, by law, no religion-based criterion can restrict the work force of for-profit corporations. The distinction between a community made up of believers in the same religion and one embracing persons of diverse beliefs, clear as it is, constantly escapes the Court’s attention. One can only wonder why the Court shuts this key difference from sight.
These are grim days we are living in, in which the rights of legally-constructed, artificial entities trump the rights of actual women to receive medical care. What’s more, we are expected to accept the sincerity of such corporate religious beliefs, despite numerous examples that clearly indicate otherwise. For example, Hobby Lobby is run by a religious family who have used their company to discriminate against other religions; who have directed corporate funds to support the ministry of a man accused of sexually harassing and molesting multiple women (including teenage girls); whose retirement fund continues to invest in makers of the very same methods of contraception they contested at the Supreme Court.
But it’s okay, Justice Alito and his four (male) compatriots tell us. The government can just pay for your slut pills now! We’ll treat for-profit secular entities the same way we treat legitimate religious not-for-profit institutions, and allow the millions of women employed by closely held corporations to avail themselves of that loophole. Because conservatives love big government, right?