States and organizations are gearing up to battle Trump over birth control

President Trump in Washington on Oct. 6, 2017. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Democratic attorneys general in Massachusetts and California have filed federal lawsuits against the Trump administration in response to rollbacks of contraceptive mandates in the Affordable Care Act.

The Department of Health and Human Services announced Friday that employers with a religious or moral objection could opt out of providing birth control as part of health insurance benefits for employees.

The new rules will “provide conscience protections to Americans who have a religious or moral objection to paying for health insurance that covers contraceptive/abortifacient services,” writes the HHS in a statement.

The rollbacks are part of campaign promises made by Trump. In a letter to the Catholic Leadership Conference last October, then candidate Trump called the requirements “onerous” and “a hostility to religious liberty you will never see in a Trump administration.”

Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey filed a lawsuit Friday calling the rollback, “a direct attack on women’s health and the right to access affordable and reliable contraception.’’ California Attorney General Xavier Becerra tweeted: “We’ll see the Trump administration in court.”


 

A number of organizations have announced plans to join the legal challenges, including the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Women’s Law Center, the Center for Reproductive Rights, and Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

In a briefing with reporters Friday, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders responded to questions about reversing the mandate, saying, “The president believes that the freedom to practice one’s faith is a fundamental right in this country, and I think all of us do. And that’s all that today was about — our federal government should always protect that right. And as long as Donald Trump is president, he will.”

This move further complicates the Trump administration’s efforts to work with Democrats on health care. Trump tweeted this morning that he had called Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., to try to get the ball rolling. “I called Chuck Schumer yesterday to see if the Dems want to do a great HealthCare Bill. ObamaCare is badly broken, big premiums. Who knows!” the president tweeted.


Schumer responded by saying that a repeal of Obamacare was “off the table,” but added that he was willing to hear suggestions about how to improve the existing system.

Meanwhile, the president continues to try to unravel the 2010 Affordable Care Act after several failed attempts at repealing it. Trump said last week that he plans to issue an executive order allowing the purchase of insurance across state lines. “I’ll probably be signing a very major executive order where people can go out, cross state lines, do lots of things and buy their own health care, and that will be probably signed next week,” he told reporters.

The recent controversy over birth control is a hallmark of the debate over Obamacare, which brings religion,  politics, and healthcare into the same space. Advocates for the rollback say it preserves the protection of religious liberty enshrined in the Constitution, while critics say it’s a violation of the separation between church and state.

“This is very welcome news for us and for everybody, because religious liberty is such a fundamental right,” said Archbishop William Lori, chairman of the religious freedom committee of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, in an interview with the Wall Street Journal. “It’s been something that many people, not just in the Catholic Church but beyond, have been working for.”

Brigitte Amiri, a senior staff attorney at the ACLU, told The Hill the rollback “basically gives broad license to employers to discriminate against their employees and withhold a benefit guaranteed by law.”

The rollback is the revival of a debate from a 2014 supreme court case in which Hobby Lobby, an arts and crafts chain, argued it could not be compelled to violate its religious beliefs. The court found in favor of Hobby Lobby in a 5-4 decision, and a work-around was designed for the law. That set the precedent for the current rollback, and widely expands which businesses can apply for exemption.

The number of women affected remains to be seen as businesses adjust to the changes. In Massachusetts, it’s estimated that 1.4 million women will lose coverage, and nationwide as many as 55 million, costing as much as $25 million annually in out-of-pocket costs. The administration put the number of women affected immediately at 120,000.

California residents will be less affected as there are already state laws on the books that mandate businesses provide contraceptive coverage in their insurance offerings to employees.

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