Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Recent decisions by top U.S. court hit women hard

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This U.S. Supreme Court session has been tough on American women.

A few weeks ago, the court struck down laws requiring buffer zones for protesters around Planned Parenthood clinics, even though some abortion opponents have advocated killing doctors and have severely intimidated women trying to access health care -- more than 90 per cent of which, at Planned Parenthood, does not involve abortions.

Then last week came the Hobby Lobby outrage: With another 5-4 vote, the court granted closely held corporations an exemption from the Affordable Care Act if owners' religious beliefs oppose contraception, which the law requires companies to cover.

Technically it's a narrow ruling, affecting only companies owned by individuals or small groups. But Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, in a scathing dissent, says the court "ventured into a minefield" by letting companies opt out of any law, short of taxes, based on religious claims.

The majority based its decision on legislation signed by Bill Clinton that granted a much narrower exemption to religiously based non-profits.

Hobby Lobby, a chain of craft stores owned by the evangelical Green family, has no religious purpose. Furthermore, critics say it does not follow Christian principles in its business practices: Its shelves are stocked with cheap merchandise from China allegedly manufactured by near-slave labour.

In allowing for-profit companies such as this to refuse to cover contraception, the Supreme Court's five-member conservative majority has dismissed women's health as a compelling public interest.

Worldwide, the single greatest factor in lifting societies out of poverty is women gaining the ability to control when they become pregnant. Contraception allows them to avoid pregnancies that would threaten their lives or health or their families' stability.

This is why there is a powerful public interest in making contraception readily available in the U.S., particularly to low-income women -- the people companies such as Hobby Lobby typically employ. Middle-class and wealthy women can afford birth control, but it would take a minimum-wage worker a month to earn the cost of an IUD, Ginsburg noted.

Contraception further avoids the anguish of considering abortion when a pregnant woman's health, or ability to support herself, is in peril. Many conservatives oppose abortion and also oppose government assistance, pejoratively known as welfare, which predominantly goes to women and children.

This is what makes the resurgence of vehement opposition to birth control by some religious denominations, particularly the influential Catholic Church, so tragic -- and so ironic, given that most Catholic women in America use contraception at some time in their lives.

The Affordable Care Act, for all its flaws and missteps, was spot on in its treatment of birth control. The five men who make up the Supreme Court majority in this case were wrong to erode its public-health imperative.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 8, 2014 A7

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