The same day that the US House of Representatives voted to strip access to medical insurance for millions, President Trump also signed an executive order that authorized an indefensible attack on women’s reproductive rights. Taking a page from Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price’s playbook, Trump kept a misguided campaign promise to the religious right on Thursday by signing an executive order “promoting free speech and religious liberty.” That’s vague language indeed. But it’s a smokescreen for a measure that opens the door to new regulations limiting an essential right that most 21st century women (and men) take for granted: contraception.
Although the order did not go as far as social conservatives hoped — language that would have rolled back protections for gay and lesbian employees was dropped at the last minute — it’s a continuation of Price’s crackpot campaign to eliminate insurance coverage for birth control. As a congressman from Georgia, Price was stridently antiabortion, but also voted to end the federally funded Title X Family Planning Program, which helps pay for birth control, counseling, and health screenings for low-income women.
Price is also assembling a leadership team at HHS made up of fervid antiabortion advocates; Charmaine Yoest, former head of Americans United for Life, was named an assistant secretary of HHS last month, and The New York Times reports that Teresa Manning, a former lobbyist for the National Right to Life Committee, is his choice for another key role. Both women advocate scientifically unfounded views about abortion, birth control, and their links to women’s overall health.
Yet the illogic of their position is incontrovertible: Study after study has found that free access to contraception cuts down the number of unwanted pregnancies. In Colorado, the abortion rate plunged by 42 percent among teenagers who were given free intrauterine devices. It’s also going to be hard to convince American women to turn back time: Some 62 percent of all women of reproductive age in the United States use contraception, according to the Guttmacher Institute.
The potential impact on employees who obtain their health insurance through their company is equally troubling. It goes without saying that individuals are free to abide by their own faith and ethical guidelines in making the highly personal choice about whether to use birth control. Nothing about government-funded contraception, or employer-based health insurance plans, changes that. As things stand now, if business owners and nonprofits don’t want their group policies to cover contraception for reasons of religious conscience, employees must still be able to receive coverage from an alternative plan.
That’s as it should be — and that’s what’s being wrongly targeted here. For all women, contraception has been a legal, safe, and ubiquitous part of individual health care for decades. Trump’s executive order opens the door to dangerous intrusion that will ultimately harm the public health of individuals and families across the nation.