In the 20th century, women waged a battle to take control of a body organ that too many others, from corporations and religious groups to the government, had claimed authority on: their uterus. Much like other social movements of the time, it was a battle that should have attained victory long before the 21st century.
Decades later, however, after the Trump administration rolled back the birth control mandate of the Affordable Care Act in October, the battle for reproductive justice appears far from over — and perhaps not much farther ideologically from where we began.
The topic of birth control has always been emblematic of the blurry line between church and state in America, causing a political divide between groups with differing moral or religious ideals. Under the Obama administration’s Affordable Care Act, most health insurance plans were required to provide FDA-approved birth control methods to women without any out-of-pocket payment.
However, some religious groups and companies, such as Hobby Lobby, were able to evade the reproductive health care reform through appeal, with the government granting them exemption based on religious objections.
Now, the Trump administration has enabled objections to not just be “religious,” but “moral” as well — and essentially, although it is arbitrary, giving power to any employer to revoke a female employee’s access to birth control as their personal convictions see fit.
A press release by the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services said the administration expects only 200 companies will utilize the exemption, projecting to affect only 0.1 percent of the female population — but these are only the entities which filed lawsuits under the Affordable Care Act. Some companies may have not have sued because of cost or time, and others may still choose to deny contraceptive services at their employer’s will.
Even if the majority of employers continue to provide contraceptive services under their insurance plan, the implications of this potential denial of health care to women are palpable.
For one, members of the administration imply that the decision is not purely motivated by an interest in accommodating Christian faith. Without mandating a specific provision for employers to appeal for exemption, the administration has overridden any legitimate interests of select religious groups such as the Little Sisters of the Poor or Priests for Life, instead granting free reign as a move reeking of policy agenda.
During the Obama administration, abortion rates fell to an all-time low of 14.6 abortions per 1,000 women of childbearing age (15-44), according to a 2014 report from the Guttmacher Institute. As lead Guttmacher researcher Rachel Jones said in an interview with NBC News, this is both a positive and negative indicator for progress in women’s reproductive health: it shows that the availability of contraceptives are increasing, but more restrictions are being placed on abortion clinics.
According to the report, 75 percent of abortion patients are from low-income populations, with 49 percent of them falling under the federal poverty line. Without being provided contraceptive care under a health insurance plan, women from these populations resort to abortion — but with restricted access to abortion clinics, these women are forced to give birth under destitute circumstances.
According to Guttmacher, teenagers of Hispanic or black ethnicity are three times more likely to give birth than white teenagers, and have a median household income 18 to 20 times lower than white families. Women of this socioeconomic demographic often cannot afford to have a baby. Living in high poverty, they may not have the privilege to see abortion as just a moral or religious matter — but one that can decide their socio-economic survival, making contraceptives necessary in order to avoid abortion.
Women working in companies or nonprofits are not the only ones who will be affected by the rollback — those attending higher institutions may also face difficulty in obtaining contraceptive care. Although many universities in the United States, (such as UTD with the Student Wellness Center), offer birth control options such as condoms and guidance on contraceptives to students, religious institutions will no longer have to provide contraceptive care, either directly or through third-party insurance companies.
At religious institutions such as Loyola University, where pro-choice student groups already struggle to organize or be officially recognized by their school, access to birth control may become even more difficult, aggravating many students’ financial situations.
As these effects may soon become tangible for women across the United States, perhaps the most salient implication the rollback evokes is one of the biggest problems in the context of women’s reproductive health — its normalization.
This is indicative of a struggle that exists in our society when sexually-active males are praised as “players” and many of their female counterparts are called “sluts,” and when we still don’t feel entirely comfortable seeing women visibly pull a tampon or sanitary napkin from their bags.
The struggle is one that is caused by the hesitation of mainstream culture to embrace realities of women’s sexual and reproductive health, normalizing Viagra but not female birth control. A recent viral video from media company ATTN brought attention to the notion that few people are aware of all the provisions under female birth control, including treating chronic acne, medication for menstrual pain and regulating periods.
Although the topic of female birth control is deeply rooted in religious dispute, the factors of socio-cultural stigma, lack of awareness and the administration’s policy agenda are also at play in Trump’s new rollback. Exemption should be granted to select religious groups, but considering the basic health concerns of all women and the stakes at risk for those from more vulnerable communities, we cannot afford to focus on reaffirming personal beliefs of those with power rather than those who need our attention.
Until this is realized, the battle for the validation and fulfillment of women’s reproductive needs is far from over.