Hands Off Our Birth Control, Pennsylvania

Another bites the dust in the ongoing battle over the contraception mandate in President Obama's namesake legislation, marking a continued victory for women in their quest for reproductive rights. In a now-familiar trend, an appeals court in Pennsylvania has, thankfully, rejected claims allowing organizations to opt out of providing contraceptives to Pennsylvania students and employees based on religious grounds. Thus far, not a single appeal of the like has been upheld by a higher court of law, demonstrating real progress in the realm of a woman's right to choose when, where and with whom to have her children. Bravo, President Obama — there's a legacy you can be proud of.

Like other organizations before it, plaintiffs at Geneva College, a private Christian institution, wanted to go a step beyond opting out of providing contraceptive coverage themselves. Rather, as Jessica Mason Pieklo wrote for RH Reality Check, they argued "that the task of completing the government’s form that self-certifies them as religious employers and eligible for an accommodation 'triggers' or 'facilitates' their employees from eventually getting contraceptive coverage elsewhere," thereby making religious representatives "complicit in what [they believe] to be a sinful act." But the Third Circuit court was decidedly unconvinced and unimpressed, unceremoniously rejecting, wholesale, these claims.

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The decision, written by Judge Marjorie O. Rendell, read,

Far from "triggering" the provision of contraceptive coverage to the appellees’ employees and students, [the government’s opt-out form] totally removes the appellees from providing those services. [The opt-out form] does not entitle [the appellees] to control their employees’ relationships with other entities willing to provide health insurance coverage to which the employees are legally entitled.

But the Catholic plaintiffs clearly see things differently, with Pittsburgh Bishop David Zubik releasing a statement soon after the announcement, in which he noted, "Such a ruling should cause deep concern for anyone who cares about any First Amendment rights, especially the right to teach and practice a religious faith. This decision says that the church is no longer free to practice what we preach."

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Of course, at issue here seems to be the extent to which the Catholic Church, or any religious organization for that matter, is able to "practice" their own beliefs. And it seems that church officials believe that their jurisdiction far exceeds their immediate reach, an opinion that courts have rejected time and time again. But still, the College and the other two organizations involved in this appeal are considering returning to the justice system, with a potential Supreme Court case looming in the not-so-distant future.

The Pennsylvania court joins those in Chicago, Cincinnati and Washington, DC who have all handed down similar rulings, and at least four additional appellate courts are considering the same issue. If history is to be any indication, plaintiffs involved in the upcoming hearings don't have much of a chance either.

This latest decision coincides with the release of a study in journal Human Reproduction, which suggests that up to 15 million unwanted pregnancies could be avoided every year were women granted access to modern contraception, much like the methods and drugs currently in question under the Affordable Care Act. Whereas much of the underdeveloped and developing world suffers from a lack of education amongst women who are unable to obtain proper birth control, the United States is facing a very different problem. But regardless of the roadblocks to a woman's reproductive rights, the consequences of their loss are the same.


Of course, the United States ranks far above many countries in terms of access to contraception, but even so, many of the same concerns remain just as prevalent and relevant here as they do internationally. And in 2015, this is simply no longer acceptable.

As modern medicine makes birth control increasingly effective, with recent research showing that devices like IUDs and implants lasting far longer than their currently prescribed and approved rates, women are maintaining increasing amounts of agency, bringing the question of when to have a child more solidly into their domain. And as science advances, so too should traditional belief systems, particularly those that fundamentally contradict the female right to choose.

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While the Third Circuit decision in Pennsylvania certainly marks yet another decisive victory for Obamacare and for women, there is little doubt that this issue will ultimately make its way all the way back up to the Roberts Court, where the Supreme Court must decide once and for all how to handle the situation. The highest court in the land, of course, does not have the greatest of track records when it comes to reproductive records (cough, Hobby Lobby, cough), but the gravity of such a decision cannot be overlooked. So if and when this case does circle back around, here's looking at you, Judge Roberts and company — do the right thing. Stand with women.

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