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2 September 2005
The Fight For Contraceptive Equity
by Angie Rankman

“Contraceptive equity” has been on the Coalition of Labor Union Women’s (CLUW) agenda since the mid-nineties. Advocates of contraceptive equity want to see contraception covered by employer health insurer plans. It’s a straightforward cause which doesn’t come at great expense – in fact; it could actually save employers money. And while health insurance plans already cover a range of preventative treatments for employees, it is not the norm for contraception to automatically be among the list of approved treatments. In fact, according to the CLUW, less than half of these insurance plans include contraception.

While contraceptive equity may have breathed new life into the women’s labor movement, it may be a harder task to have it made into law in many states. What’s the problem? Employer costs? Patriarchy? Moral objections coming from religious conservatives? Or perhaps all of the above?

The most common arguments against contraceptive equity don’t really make a lot of sense. Some opponents of the contraception campaign claim that it arose solely as a knee-jerk reaction to the erectile dysfunction drug Viagra™ being added to the list of subsidized drugs, in health plans where contraception is not. While this is actually a ludicrous and gross inequity in itself, it’s not the central reason why organizations like the CLUW have rallied behind the move to include contraception in workplace insurance schemes. The CLUW claims that: “women pay on average 68 percent more out of pocket expenses than men - largely as a result of having to pay for contraception out of pocket.”

It’s hard to understand the reluctance of some employers to introduce contraceptive equity, as the often adverse effects surrounding unwanted pregnancies affect both employees and employers. The cost of implementing such a plan is minimal compared with that of lower productivity through absenteeism and the high health insurance costs that unplanned pregnancies attract. According to The Center for Reproductive Rights, women not using contraceptives may become pregnant four times over a five-year period, which would incur an unhealthy $14,000 bill for their health insurance provider. Comparatively, providing the most common of contraceptive pills to women would cost around just over $2000 dollars. If employers were smart, they’d do the math and realize that contraceptive equity is not only the right thing to do for their employees, but for the whole of the community.

Since lobbying began, things have improved remarkably, but it is nowhere near the desired outcome of making it law across the United States. A recent study conducted by The Alan Guttmacher Institute (AGI), a nonprofit organization focused on sexual and reproductive health policy and education, showed that while state laws have been more-or-less effective; “Half of all U.S. women live in the 30 states that do not require plans to cover contraceptives, and plans designed for these states offer inferior coverage compared with plans designed for mandate states.”

Why legislation of the insurance amendment is not proceeding as swiftly as many would like is largely due to numerous employers deciding to self-insure, rather than using prepackaged plans from insurance companies. The AGI says that: “By law, self-insured plans are exempt from state coverage requirements, and the extent of contraceptive coverage in self-insured plans nationally is unknown.” A cynical person might ask whether employers deliberately choose self-insurance plans as a cost cutting measure. But as we already established, it isn’t prohibitive costs that are keeping contraceptives out of health plans.

In fact, there really is no reason why contraception should be excluded from insurance plans. So, why is there reluctance among employers to allow women the right-of-access to contraception?

One of the most vocal sources of opposition comes from religious organizations that believe contraception and the Church are incompatible. They claim that being forced to subsidize contraception is an infringement upon the very foundations of their faith. As individual states in the U.S. have introduced state contraception legislation, many of them have included exemptions that make the laws non-binding for faith-based organizations. However, the exemptions did not include those public bodies, such as charities, which worked on behalf of the Church. This legal distinction has led many faith-based organizations to fear continued encroachment of state law into the sanctity of religious life. In 2003 a Christian Science Monitor article quoted Dennis Poust, a spokesman for the New York State Catholic Conference in Albany, as saying: "The church teaches us that contraception is sinful, yet the state is forcing us to provide it directly to our employees. That's a clear violation of our religious faith."

George Bush’s presence in the White House could make the road to comprehensive contraceptive equity even tougher. In last December’s New York Sun, Bush was quoted as saying: "This country must not fear the influence of faith in the future of this country. We must welcome faith in order to make America a better place." It’s possible that many religious groups will follow Bush’s lead and dig-in against the perceived tide of immorality emanating from U.S. courts. While it cannot always be observed explicitly, it may be that much of the resistance to contraceptive equity has been inspired via newly invigorated religious morals and values.

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