There's not a lot we agree on in this country. And yet, there is one topic around which there is practically universal agreement: the right of women to access birth control.
That's right -- 99% of women in the U.S. who have been sexually active have used birth control. It's used by women of every demographic, every geographic location, every income level -- and every religious group.
So does it sound crazy that a small group of religious leaders and tea-party Republicans are fighting to eliminate women's access to birth control?
But that's exactly what's happening. Right now in Washington, D.C., a small but influential group is lobbying the White House to prevent millions of women in America from having equal access to birth control under insurance plans. It seems as though having one of the highest unintended pregnancy rates, not to mention the highest teen pregnancy rate, among the world's most developed countries isn't enough -- we've got to make it even harder for women to access family planning.
The dangerous proposal put forth by this vocal minority tries to take advantage of an unfair exemption crafted by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) that allows certain religious employers to opt out of the new federal requirement that insurance plans include birth control and other preventive services with no co-pay.
But here's the thing: The HHS definition of "a "religious employer" applies to nonprofit organizations that have instilling religious values as their purpose and whose employees and clients share their religious tenets. In other words, religious institutions such as churches are already exempted.
But these lobbyists are trying to expand this definition to include religiously affiliated colleges, universities, medical schools, hospitals, social service organizations, schools, you name it -- so that these organizations will be able to refuse birth control coverage for their employees as well. This, despite the fact that these institutions in large part neither employ nor serve individuals who share their religious beliefs. In fact, they are open to and serve the public.
The result of such an expansion would be nothing short of tragic for millions of Americans and their families. Nearly 800,000 people work at Catholic hospitals and there are approximately two million students and workers at universities that have a religious affiliation. This expansion would impact all of these individuals -- as well as their dependents, denying them a benefit that finally makes an essential health care service affordable.
An expanded refusal policy for any organization claiming to be "religious" would amount to the single most damaging refusal provision around birth control ever implemented. In fact, it would set a standard as bad as or even worse than the refusal provision that George W. Bush put into place near the end of his administration -- and that President Obama sensibly and swiftly dismantled.
In essence, this harmful and illogical measure would undermine the very purposes of the Affordable Care Act -- eliminating discrimination in health care coverage and making sure all Americans have insurance coverage that meets their basic, preventive health needs. In fact, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has declared that the exclusion of insurance coverage for prescription contraceptive drugs and devices in an employer health plan that covers prescription drugs is sex discrimination.
An expanded refusal policy not only undermines a fundamental tenet of the Affordable Care Act -- that every person in this country deserves a basic standard of health care coverage -- it could set a devastating precedent that goes way beyond reproductive health care. Down the line, it could open the door to refusals to provide or cover any service that might be deemed to violate religious beliefs -- whether it be a blood transfusion, condoms to prevent HIV transmission, end-of-life care, mental health services, or mere information about health care options.
Just last week, the voters of Mississippi overwhelmingly rejected a proposed "personhood" amendment, in large part because it would have prevented women from being able to access birth control. The American people support birth control, and American women use it. The beauty of birth control is if you don't want or need it, you don't have to use it. That's a decision women can make perfectly well on their own, without the interference of government or religion. And that's something on which we should all be able to agree.