Are Women Fighting the Wrong Fight on Contraceptives?

Those defending Obama's contraception mandate should be trying to make the Pill available over-the-counter instead.

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Ed Andrieski / AP

Customers are seen at a Hobby Lobby store in Denver on Wednesday, May 22, 2013. Hobby Lobby stores are challenging a federal mandate requiring it to offer employees health coverage that includes access to the morning-after birth control pill. The Oklahoma based arts and crafts chain says the mandate violates the religious beliefs of its owners.

Two lawsuits challenging the Obamacare mandate requiring employers to provide health insurance that covers contraceptives reached the Supreme Court last week. The owners of both companies—a craft store chain called Hobby Lobby and a cabinet-making firm called Conestoga Wood Specialties—are arguing that the requirement is a violation of religious liberty. Reproductive rights groups are angry, but if they want to give American women control over their sexual destiny, they should be focusing their efforts on making birth control an over-the-counter drug instead of forcing employers to cover it.

Men everywhere can walk into a store and buy as many condoms as they want, no questions asked. Likewise, women in Mexico, India and 44 other countries can buy oral contraceptives when they wish. Not so in the United States, even though 99 percent of all sexually experienced American women — and 98 percent of Catholic American women — use some form of birth control. This seems downright bizarre.

Despite such overwhelming demand, a Rasmussen poll released Monday found that only 38 percent of Americans support forcing employers to cover contraceptives— and 51 percent oppose it.

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Feminists claim that such attitudes stem from “sexism,” “misogyny” and a “fear of women’s sexuality.” But if that were the case, 90 percent of Americans wouldn’t say that birth control is “morally acceptable.” What feminists don’t seem to get is that there is something problematic about making one person’s access to contraception contingent on trampling on another person’s religion.

This is precisely what the plaintiffs Hobby Lobby, which is owned by strict Christians, and Conestoga Wood Specialties, which is run by a Mennonite family, are arguing. They note that they may not be churches, which the administration has exempted from the contraceptive mandate, but they do run their business in accordance with their religious principles. Hobby Lobby doesn’t sell shot glasses either and is closed on Sundays because its owners’ note in their brief that they try and “integrate their faith into their daily lives, including their work.”

The administration argues that acquiescing to such arguments would mean allowing bosses or corporate CEOs to restrict women’s choices to promote their own religious beliefs. “Our policy is designed to ensure that health care decisions are made between a woman and her doctor,” noted White House spokesman Jay Carney. But it’s not bosses who pose the bigger barrier to birth control but doctors themselves.

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The only reason American women need insurance coverage for contraception is because they can’t buy birth control pills without a prescription—which doctors won’t hand them without an annual exam. Few dispute anymore— not even the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists— that the pills are perfectly safe requiring neither a medical diagnosis nor supervision. They have side effects like every other medicine but none so serious that can’t be effectively communicated through the usual warning labels. Requiring a medical exam assumes that women can’t be completely trusted with their own health. But such paternalism is counterproductive: Most women who stop taking pills don’t do so because they can’t afford them without insurance. (A one-month generic supply from Costco costs $25.) They do so because they can’t always make the time for a doctor’s visit when their prescription runs out. This problem is especially acute for working women — professional or others.

The birth control issue shouldn’t be cast in terms women’s rights versus religious rights. That’ll turn it into a lose-lose proposition. Medical paternalism is a far bigger threat to women’s reproductive choices than religious zealotry. Focusing on the first will do more to give women control over their bodies— including the female employees of Hobby Lobby — than a pitched battle against the second.

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