Birth control battle

By Emily Fasold

While the first wave of feminism in the early 20th century was aimed at gaining the right to vote, the current generation of American women has struggled to achieve full insurance coverage for pregnancy, birth control, emergency contraception and other women’s health care issues. Up until now, that is.

After fierce negotiation, President Barack Obama’s administration and the Department of Health and Human Services announced this February that both public and religiously affiliated companies will be required to offer female employees full coverage of preventative services, including Plan B and birth control, under the Affordable

Care Act.

“Since women have babies, they are more expensive to insure, which is why health insurance companies don’t like to cover [their] health care unless they’re required to do so by law,” explained Pamela Sutherland, vice president of Public Policy for Planned Parenthood of Illinois. “But this law will change disparity.”

The announcement changed the original Affordable Healthcare Act guidelines introduced last August that allowed religiously affiliated universities, hospitals and other organizations to opt out of covering their employees’ birth control if doing so went against their religious beliefs.

Following an uproar from the Catholic Church, Obama compromised by mandating this February that religious employers’ insurance companies would be responsible for covering birth control costs instead of employers. However, the new measure ensures that female employees will be covered either way.

Churches, mosques and other solely religious institutions are the only exception to the Affordable Care Act, which will go into effect this August.

To Sutherland, this is a long-awaited victory. “This will be life changing,” she said. “Women who have had to stop seeing their gynecologists and taking birth control are now going to be able to access health care.”

Sutherland explained that Obama’s “revolutionary” new health care plan will greatly reduce the number of women who have to discontinue their reproductive health care because insurance companies will no longer be able to deny coverage or charge high premiums for birth control, pregnancy or any other female-specific needs.

“Women who use birth control will be able to save between $600 and $3,000 per year,” Sutherland said. “This is huge for women in these struggling economic times.”

Many religious organizations are upset with the decision, arguing that the Affordable Care Act is a violation of the separation between church and state because it requires them to provide birth control methods that conflict with their religious beliefs.

Sister Mary Ann Walsh, director of Media Relations for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, views the DHHS, regulation as more of a religious rights issue than a women’s health concern.

“I think that what you’re seeing in the public now is a manipulation of a religious liberty issue into a contraceptive issue,” Walsh said. “[The mandate] interferes with the internal matters of our church, which is a serious violation of the First Amendment.”

Walsh said the Catholic Church believes that all forms of birth control except abstinence and natural family planning are immoral because they interfere with the natural process of conception. The church believes that the sanctity of human life pertains even before a man ejaculates, before the sperm reaches a woman’s egg.

However, according to a survey of contraceptive use among Catholic women conducted this month by the Guttmacher Institute, most women do not share Walsh’s traditional views.

The survey found that only 2 percent of Catholic women rely on natural family planning to prevent unwanted pregnancies and 98 percent use a medical form of birth control, compared to 99 percent of the general population.

“Most sexually active women … practice contraception,” said Rachel Jones, the report’s lead author, in a press release. “This is also true for Catholics, despite the Catholic hierarchy’s strenuous opposition to contraception.”

Those in favor of full birth control coverage argue that contraceptives are not only used as tools to prevent pregnancy but for health purposes, as well.

According to Sutherland, some women rely on birth control pills to regulate their menstrual cycles, alleviate PMS symptoms, reduce acne and treat endometriosis, a condition that causes tissues from the uterus to grow on the ovaries, Fallopian tubes and surrounding areas.

“There are a lot of reasons why women take birth control other than preventing pregnancy,” she said. “That’s why it is especially important that women receive full coverage for it.”

Sara Rosenquist, a sexual and reproductive health psychologist from North Carolina, said she is in favor of the Affordable Care Act because its coverage isn’t limited to contraceptives but will also cover life-saving screenings for breast and cervical cancers.

Rosenquist said she has witnessed sexism in the medical field firsthand. In 2007, her mother was unable to afford reconstructive surgery after she lost a breast to cancer because her insurance considered the surgery cosmetic and therefore unnecessary.

“I think that these disparities in health care happen because the health of [women’s reproductive organs] is thought to be optional in our culture,” she said.

Rosenquist said she hopes that this will never have to happen to a woman again after the Affordable Care Act goes into effect.

“I definitely feel that birth control and all other women’s health issues should be fully covered,” she said. “Women have a right to manage their fertility.”