Supreme Court divided over Obamacare’s contraceptive mandate

click to enlarge Birth control pills at a home in Bend, Ore., Sept. 4, 2015. The Supreme Court heard arguments on Wednesday, May 6, 2020, about whether the Trump administration may allow employers with religious or moral objections to deny women free birth control coverage under the Affordable Care Act. - RUTH FREMSON/THE NEW YORK TIMES
Ruth Fremson/The New York Times
Birth control pills at a home in Bend, Ore., Sept. 4, 2015. The Supreme Court heard arguments on Wednesday, May 6, 2020, about whether the Trump administration may allow employers with religious or moral objections to deny women free birth control coverage under the Affordable Care Act.
By Adam Liptak
The New York Times Company


WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court heard arguments Wednesday about whether the Trump administration may allow employers with religious or moral objections to deny women free birth control coverage under the Affordable Care Act.

According to government estimates, about 70,000 to 126,000 women would lose contraceptive coverage from their employers if the Trump administration prevails.


In the Obama years, the court heard two cases on whether religious groups could refuse to comply with regulations requiring contraceptive coverage. The new case presented the opposite question: Can the Trump administration allow all sorts of employers with religious or moral objections to contraception to opt out of the coverage requirement?

Even as the justices appeared deeply divided along the usual lines Wednesday, there was broad agreement that the case, Little Sisters of the Poor v. Pennsylvania, No. 19-431, required the court to balance religious freedom against women’s health.

The court heard the argument by conference call. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said Congress had settled the matter in favor of access to contraception coverage. Solicitor General Noel Francisco, representing the administration, said there was nothing in the health care law itself that required coverage for contraception. He added that women who could not get coverage from their employers had other ways to obtain contraceptives.

In March 2010, President Barack Obama signed the Affordable Care Act, which includes a section that requires coverage of preventive health services and screenings for women. The next year, the Obama administration required employers and insurers to provide women with coverage at no cost for all methods of contraception approved by the Food and Drug Administration.


Houses of worship, including churches, temples and mosques, were exempt from the requirement. But nonprofit groups like schools and hospitals affiliated with religious organizations were not. Some of those groups objected to providing coverage for any of the approved forms of contraception. Others objected to contraception they said was tantamount to abortion, though there are substantial questions about whether that characterization was correct as a matter of science.

The Trump administration took the side of the religious employers, saying that requiring contraception coverage can impose a “substantial burden” on the exercise of religion.

The states of Pennsylvania and New Jersey challenged the new rules, saying they would have to shoulder much of the cost of providing contraceptives to women who lost coverage under the Trump administration’s rules.

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