The Trump administration's effort to allow companies to opt out of providing employees birth control coverage on religious or moral grounds has hit a roadblock. On Friday, a federal judge blocked Trump's rollback of Obamacare's birth control mandate, temporarily preventing the White House from enforcing its new rules.
The decision on Friday comes from Judge Wendy Beetlestone, who granted Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro's request for a preliminary injunction. In her ruling, Judge Beetlestone said the state is "likely to suffer serious and irreparable harm" from the Trump administration's rules. Limited access to affordable birth control, she wrote in her 44-page ruling, would lead to more unplanned pregnancies, which would in turn hurt Pennsylvania's economy:
[Pennsylvania's] concern is absent available cost-effective contraception, women will either forgo contraception entirely or choose cheaper but less effective methods — individual choices which will result in an increase in unintended pregnancies. That in turn will inflict economic harm on the [state] because unintended pregnancies are more likely to impose additional costs on Pennsylvania’s state-funded health programs.
The rollback of Obamacare's birth control mandate was announced in early October to intense backlash. The health care law mandates that employers must cover FDA-approved contraception at no cost for its employees, a requirement that has been contentious since it was introduced.
Many religious-affiliated organizations protested its inclusion in the Affordable Care Act, claiming the mandate is an attack on their religious beliefs. Over the years, however, polls have found that there is broad support for the ACA's birth control mandate among the public. According to one study commissioned by the Obama administration, because of the mandate, more than 55 million women have access to affordable birth control. The New York Times reported that hundreds of thousands of women stand to lose that access under Trump's new rules.
Obamacare's birth control mandate was most prominently challenged by arts and crafts chain Hobby Lobby in Burwell V. Hobby Lobby. In 2014, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that the government cannot force certain for-profit companies to provide its employees birth control coverage if it goes against the employers' religious beliefs. Hobby Lobby's evangelical Christian owners argued against providing coverage for contraceptives like Plan B, IUDs, and the morning after pill because they believe that those types of birth control amounted to abortion, Time reported.
The 2014 Supreme Court ruling extended the religious exemption afforded to houses of worship to more health insurance providers. The birth control rules Trump announced in October would extend that exemption to non-governmental organizations, schools and universities, nonprofits, and even more for-profit employers (including publicly traded companies) — basically, any employer that had a "sincerely held religious or moral objection" to providing its workers with birth control coverage.
The Friday ruling by Judge Beetlestone, an Obama appointee, temporarily blocks Trump's rules from taking effect across the country. The ACA birth control mandate has been credited with eliminating the cost barrier for many women. Many have pointed out that birth control is not only used as a contraceptive; for many people, it is also used to regulate hormones and ease menstrual cramps.
Pennsylvania isn't the only state that has sued the Trump administration for rolling back the health care law's birth control mandate. Earlier this week, a federal judge in California heard arguments over the administration's new birth control rules, and a ruling is set to come soon. Civil rights groups like the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Women's Law Center have also filed lawsuits against the White House. But Judge Beetlestone's ruling on Friday is a significant — if temporary — first successful challenge to the administration's rules.