In a closely watched case, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled most private companies that claim religious objections can refuse to provide birth control in their employee health plans as required by the Affordable Care Act. In a 5-to-4 ruling opposed by all three women on the court, the justices ruled that requiring "closely held corporations" to pay for contraception violates a federal law protecting religious freedom. About 90 percent of U.S. businesses are considered "closely held corporations." The ruling concerned two companies, Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood, which objected to certain methods of birth control on religious grounds, claiming they are akin to abortion, despite scientific consensus to the contrary. Critics say the ruling allows discrimination against women, 99 percent of whom will use birth control at some point in their lives. "For women, this is not a controversial issue. It is a basic healthcare issue. It is an economic issue," says Cecile Richards, president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America and the Planned Parenthood Action Fund. "The only controversy is why in the world, in 2014, are we still fighting to get birth control covered by insurance plans?"
AMY GOODMAN: We’re broadcasting from the Global Media Forum in Bonn, Germany. But first, this national news in the United States. In a closely watched case, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled most private companies that claim religious objections can refuse to provide birth control in their employee health plans as required by the Affordable Care Act. In a five-to-four ruling opposed by all three women on the court, the justices ruled that requiring closely held corporations to pay for contraception violates a federal law protecting religious freedom. The title "closely held corporation" applies to about 90 percent of U.S. businesses employing more than half of the U.S. workforce. The case concerns two companies, Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood, which objected to certain methods of birth control on religious grounds, claiming they’re akin to abortion, despite scientific consensus to the contrary.
Critics say the ruling legalizes discrimination against women, 99 percent of whom will use birth control at some point in their lives. In a biting dissent, Ruth Bader Ginsburg objected to what she called "a decision of startling breadth," which could open the door for corporations to opt out of practically any law they say conflicts with their religious beliefs. Quote, "The court ... has ventured into a minefield," she wrote. White House spokesperson Josh Earnest spoke after the ruling.
PRESS SECRETARY JOSH EARNEST: Today’s decision jeopardizes the health of women who are employed by these companies. As millions of women know firsthand, contraception is often vital to their health and well-being. That’s why the Affordable Care Act ensures that women have coverage for contraceptive care, along with other preventative care, like vaccines and cancer screenings. We will work with Congress to make sure that any women affected by this decision will still have the same coverage of vital health services as everyone else.
AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile, Mother Jones magazine reports that at the same time Hobby Lobby argued the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate forced them to violate their religious beliefs, the company spent millions of dollars on an employee retirement plan that invested in the manufacturers of the same contraceptive products cited in its lawsuit. Records show it made large matching contributions to plans that included companies that produce emergency contraceptive pills, IUDs and drugs commonly used in abortions.
On Monday, women’s rights groups spoke out against the Supreme Court decision during rallies held across the country. This is student activist Alyssa Cannizzaro, who attended a protest in New York.
ALYSSA CANNIZZARO: When I first heard the ruling today, I felt angry and disgusted. The Supreme Court should not have the right to decide women’s personal health issues. And for a company to impose its own religious beliefs on its employees is not right. Contraception is a basic right of women in healthcare, and that is why it was included in the Affordable Care Act by President Obama. It’s a basic right that women should have. And if low-income families and women don’t have access to that, they’re not going to be able to support their growing families. You know, it’s your personal decision to decide when you want to have a family, if you want to have a family, not your boss’s and not your boss’s religious beliefs.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, for more, we’re joined in New York by Cecile Richards, the president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America and the Planned Parenthood Action Fund.
Welcome back to Democracy Now!, Cecile. Can you respond to this Supreme Court ruling?
CECILE RICHARDS: Sure, and I’m glad you covered the young woman here in New York. I think she represents the thousands of people we heard from yesterday all across the country who are outraged about this decision. I think she captured it exactly correctly, which is, it is—this is a decision that now allows a CEO of a company, based on his or her own personal beliefs, to deny coverage of birth control for their employees. And this is a shocking decision and one which I think opens widely the door to challenging laws that employers don’t want to comply with based on their own religious views.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to read from Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s scathing 35-page dissent, in which she argued that a woman’s decision to claim birth control benefits is not equivalent to a moral action on the part of her employer. She noted even if Hobby Lobby was burdened by the contraception mandate, the government has shown that providing no-cost birth control to women is, quote, "a compelling interest in public health and women’s well being." She added, quote, "Those interests are concrete, specific, and demonstrated by a wealth of empirical evidence. ... [T]he mandated contraception coverage enables women to avoid the health problems unintended pregnancies may visit on them and their children." Can you respond to this, Cecile Richards?
CECILE RICHARDS: Absolutely. I think, look, three things. One, at Planned Parenthood, we’ve made enormous progress in this country reducing unintended pregnancy and teen pregnancy. Frankly, the uptake on birth control has been tremendous.
The second is, we are going to work with folks in Congress. There are many senators who are already eager to introduce legislation that would address the issues raised in the Supreme Court decision.
And the third, I think, is really important, Amy, for folks to understand, is despite this ruling yesterday, more than 30 million women in this country, because of the Affordable Care Act, are now getting or eligible for birth control at no cost from their employer. We just looked at the numbers from last year. Women in America saved $483 million more on birth control last year than ever before, meaning that we’re finally, I think, addressing the fact that for too many years birth control has been stigmatized and not covered by insurance plans.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to ask you about this latest Mother Jones report that says, "When Hobby Lobby filed its case against Obamacare’s contraception mandate, its retirement plan had more than $73 million invested in funds with stakes in contraception makers." What does that say to you, Cecile Richards?
CECILE RICHARDS: Well, I think, Amy, there’s a lot of hypocrisy in this entire case. Hobby Lobby actually used to cover for their employees the same types of contraceptives that they are now so exercised about. So, I think what we’re seeing is there has been a concerted effort, and we have dozens of lawsuits, by employers now to challenge this birth control benefit, wanting to take it away from women, even some of the—but many of whom already covered it. I think the point is, as you said earlier, 99 percent of women in America use birth control at some point in their lifetime. For women, this is not a controversial issue. It is a basic healthcare issue. It’s an economic issue. The only controversy is: Why in the world in 2014 are we still fighting to get birth control covered by insurance plans?
AMY GOODMAN: What about the argument that if women use contraception, abortions will be greatly reduced?
CECILE RICHARDS: Well, it’s absolutely true. And again, that’s where I think we are making such progress in the U.S. The abortion rate’s down. The unintended pregnancy rate’s down. And we’re seeing, through the now birth control benefit under the Affordable Care Act, more women, many women, who struggled to afford birth control now can actually get it paid for at no cost under their insurance plan. It is a great public health advance. And so it’s really too bad in 2014 that we would see five justices on the Supreme Court—all male, by the way—make a decision that takes away a benefit for women that is good for their health. You know, one of the things that was interesting yesterday is we saw every major medical association—the AMA, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists—come out against this decision, saying it gets between women and their doctors about what care is the very best for them.
AMY GOODMAN: So, practically, what does this mean? You’re on a healthcare plan, you have an employer—how do you find out that contraception is not covered by that healthcare plan?
CECILE RICHARDS: Well, of course, Amy, in this, these two companies now will not have to cover the kinds of contraception that they oppose. Now, I don’t know—so that’s the immediate implication for the employees of Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood. But as Justice Ginsburg’s dissent said, this really opens the door to all kinds of objections to any type of contraceptives. So, I think what’s important now—and what we’ve seen is sort of this outrage among—of women across the country. It is really important now to be making sure that every employer understand that women that work for them need contraceptive coverage, and that we campaign across the country to ensure that it is covered for women.
AMY GOODMAN: Ruth Bader Ginsburg also noted, "It bears note in this regard that the cost of an IUD is nearly equivalent to a month’s full-time pay for workers earning the minimum wage." Cecile Richards?
CECILE RICHARDS: Well, that’s correct. Look, one of the things that was a big topic in oral argument was the fact that for many women in this country birth control is something that they couldn’t afford. And in fact, more than a third of women in this country say they have struggled to pay for birth control and had to forgo it because they needed money for rent or for groceries. I think Justice Ginsburg really hits it on the head here, which is, one of the most effective forms of birth control, an IUD, the upfront costs are sometimes prohibitive for women that are making the minimum wage, and yet it’s a very good form of birth control that is very effective in preventing unintended pregnancy. Unfortunately, this decision means that women who work for Hobby Lobby will be unable to have that covered in their insurance plan.
AMY GOODMAN: So this is the highest court in the land. What does this mean for women around the country when it comes to reproductive healthcare in these years to come?
CECILE RICHARDS: Well, I think what this means is that women better pay attention to who’s running for office in November. As we know, the Senate will determine the next nominees and confirmations on the Supreme Court. We can’t afford any more folks, justices on the Supreme Court who are so out of touch with women’s needs, women’s healthcare and women’s rights. I think this is a clarion call for women and men who care about women’s health to make sure they vote this November.
AMY GOODMAN: Cecile Richards, I want to thank you very much for being with us, president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America and the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, speaking to us from New York.
This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. When we come back, a Democracy Now! global broadcast exclusive. We speak to Sarah Harrison here in Bonn, Germany. She was the WikiLeaks investigative editor who accompanied Edward Snowden from Hong Kong to Russia, where he got political asylum. Stay with us.