The Supreme Court today settled — at least for now — a decade’s worth of litigation over the women’s health provisions of the Affordable Care Act, ruling 7-2 that employers with a “religious or moral objection” to providing contraceptive coverage to their employees may opt out without penalty.
The ACA itself did not require that contraceptives be covered. Rather, it called for preventive health services for women to be included in most insurance plans and left it to the Department of Health and Human Services to figure out which ones. In the Obama administration, HHS asked the Institute of Medicine (now the National Academy of Medicine) to recommend which services had enough scientific evidence backing them to be added, and FDA-approved methods of contraception were named by the institute.
The ruling said that the Trump administration was within its rights to exempt such religious nonprofit agencies as the Catholic order Little Sisters of the Poor, which was the lead plaintiff in the case, from having to facilitate contraceptive coverage for their employees. “We hold today that the departments had the statutory authority to craft that exemption, as well as the contemporaneously issued moral exemption,” wrote Justice Clarence Thomas in the majority opinion.
Women’s health groups were quick to decry the ruling, even though liberal Justices Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan agreed with the outcome.
“The Supreme Court just ruled that your boss or your university can, based on their own objections, take away your birth control coverage,” tweeted Planned Parenthood Action Fund, the political arm of Planned Parenthood. “The fact that the Court allowed this attack birth control coverage under the ACA in 2020 — and which has benefitted over 62 million people — shows the war on our reproductive health care isn’t just about access to abortion. It’s everything.”
Since the enactment of the ACA, some religious groups and business owners had objected bitterly to certain types of contraceptives, arguing that they should not be forced to provide the services to workers.
The Supreme Court ruled in 2014 that “closely held corporations” like the craft chain Hobby Lobby did not have to abide by the contraceptive coverage requirement. But that did not settle the issue completely.
From the start, the Obama administration exempted churches and other religious entities from the coverage requirement. Still, there was an outcry for relief from religious nonprofit groups, such as hospitals and universities. And that battle has raged while Obama officials offered compromise after compromise, to no avail.
The last Obama rule allowed religious nonprofits to opt out of providing coverage directly by signing a form that would transfer the financial and administrative responsibility for coverage to their health insurer. But the organizations — including the Little Sisters of the Poor, which operates long-term care homes for low-income seniors — insist that the act of signing the form facilitates the coverage and makes them “complicit in sin.”
The Supreme Court took up the case — actually seven cases bundled together — in 2016. But with only eight justices on the bench following the death of Justice Antonin Scalia earlier that year, the court deadlocked 4-4 and sent the cases back to the lower courts, with orders to try to find a compromise that would allow employees to receive coverage without compromising the religious beliefs of the employers.
After Donald Trump’s election, the controversy continued — but in reverse. The Trump administration issued rules to give organizations with not just religious but also moral objections to birth control the ability to opt out. That rule prompted a lawsuit by advocates of reproductive rights, who argued that women should have the right to no-cost contraception. That position was joined by state governments, whose leaders feared that if employers were to opt out, then states would end up paying more for contraceptive programs and costs associated with unwanted pregnancies.
The addition of moral objection is a dramatic expansion, said Michael Fisher, who argued the case on behalf of Pennsylvania during the court’s oral arguments in May. Fisher said the provision was so broad that employers could deny contraceptive coverage because they morally object to women being in the workplace.
The decision is likely to have a political impact larger than the loss of no-cost birth control for hundreds of thousands of women. While the court will not decide a broader case challenging the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act before November’s election, it could boost the law’s fate back onto the electoral front burner.