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What Are the Women’s Health Cases before the Supreme Court This Term?

Category: Birth Control

Tags: Birth Control, Supreme Court, Oklahoma, Justice Sotomayor, Arizona, Massachusetts, Buffer Zone, Hobby Lobby

Since the Supreme Court started their new term in October, there have been a lot of developments on issues related to women’s health.  We pulled together a quick overview, to get you up to speed about what has already taken place, and what’s on the horizon.

What’s Happened:

Arizona 20 Week Ban — Denied Review

Summary: This Monday, in a significant victory for women, the Supreme Court announced it will not take up Arizona's unconstitutional 20-week abortion ban.

The background: In 2012, Arizona enacted one of the most stringent 20 week bans in the country. Opposed by the American Congress of Obstetrics and Gynecologists (ACOG) and other medical experts, it posed a serious threat to the rights of women in America to make personal and private medical decisions.  Not only did the law ban abortion two weeks earlier than many other so-called 20 week bans, it contained only a narrow exception for medical emergencies, leaving many scenarios where a woman’s health may be at risk, but where a doctor, for fear of being prosecuted or simply because the crisis did not rise to the level of medical emergency, would not be able to offer her care.  A three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously declared the law unconstitutional, and that ruling will stand due to the Supreme Court’s refusal to hear the case.

Why it matters: While women should not have to justify their personal medical decisions, the reality is that abortion later in pregnancy is very rare and often happens under heartbreaking and tragic circumstances.  In states that have enforced laws like this, some women and their families have been put into unimaginable situations — needing to end a pregnancy for serious medical reasons, but unable to do so. The case in Arizona should send a message to politicians across the country: dangerous and unconstitutional restrictions on safe and legal abortion like Arizona’s law will not pass muster in the courts.

Medication Abortion and Mandatory Ultrasound — Denied Review

Summary: The U.S. Supreme Court denied review of an appeal to a state supreme court ruling which struck down a mandatory ultrasound law.  They also denied review of a state supreme court decision striking down a law that would restrict access to medication abortion, which women in the U.S. have been using safely and legally for more than a decade.

The background: After an Oklahoma state court judge ruled that a 2010 mandatory ultrasound law violates that state’s constitution, the Oklahoma Supreme Court affirmed that decision, finding that the ultrasound requirement was unconstitutional under the U.S. Supreme Court’s opinion in Planned Parenthood v. Casey.  This unconstitutional law would have shamed and demeaned women, not only mandating the ultrasound but requiring the provider to have the image placed in front of the woman and hear it described in detail — even if she objects.  The second case concerned a law which would have required physicians to follow an outdated protocol when administering medication abortion that is rarely used today because years of research and doctors’ practical experience demonstrate that alternate regimens are more effective. This law also limited the use of medications used to treat life-threatening conditions for women.  The U.S. Supreme Court let stand the Oklahoma court’s rulings striking down these laws.

Why it matters: Policies should promote accurate information and help support a woman in making decisions, not shame, coerce and demean her.  Also, politicians make bad doctors. By letting the rulings on these unconstitutional laws stand, Oklahoma women can continue to make their personal and private medical decisions in coordination with their faith, their family, and their doctors — not politicians.  

Despite these victories, women’s health is still on the docket. Here are the laws that the Supreme Court WILL be taking up:

Buffer Zone — Oral Arguments January 15

Summary: The Court held oral arguments today in McCullen vs. Coakley, a case that will affect whether staff and patients will be given reasonable protection from violence and harassment while accessing health centers.

The background: Following decades of harassment, intimidation, and even violence toward women seeking safe access to legal reproductive health care services (and the staff who serve them), current Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts CEO Martha “Marty” Walz led the effort to pass the MA Buffer Zone law as a state legislator in 2007. The law, which creates a 35-foot buffer zone where no protests or demonstrations can take place — regardless of the point of view being expressed, was adopted to protect public safety and patient privacy, while respecting the free speech rights of protesters outside the health care center. The Supreme Court is reviewing a decision by the First Circuit Court of Appeals holding the Massachusetts constitutional.

Why it matters:

To protect the health, safety, and security of patients and staff, this law must be upheld.  We cannot go back to a time when women were routinely harassed or intimidated when trying to access health care, and no doubt feeling vulnerable, as so many of us do when undergoing medical care. 

For-Profit Companies Sue to Deny the Birth Control Benefit — Oral Arguments Begin March 25

Summary: The U.S. Supreme Court is taking up two cases brought by for-profit corporations that have claimed they have a right to deny their employees birth control under their health insurance plans: Hobby Lobby, a chain of arts and crafts stores with 21,000 employees, and Conestoga Wood Specialties, a cabinet manufacturer.

The background: Because of the Affordable Care Act, insurance companies are now required to cover birth control with no out-of-pocket costs.  But now, more than 40 for-profit companies have sued to make that decision FOR women — because they don’t want to cover this benefit.

Why it matters: The decision to use birth control should be between a woman and her doctor, not between a woman and her employer. Your boss shouldn’t decide whether you have birth control as part of your health insurance. These cases could create a slippery slope, allowing businesses to deny their employees a whole host of other medical procedures to which they are legally entitled, based solely on their personal beliefs — procedures and treatments like vaccines, surgeries, blood transfusions, or mental health care.

Justice Sotomayor Issues a Temporary Suspension for Religiously Affiliated Organizations

Summary: In Little Sisters of the Poor Home for the Aged v. Sebelius, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor temporarily blocked implementation of the Affordable Care Act’s birth control benefit requirement as applied to religiously affiliated organizations.

The background: This case is not about whether churches and places of worship are exempt from covering birth control (they already are), but rather about how religiously affiliated organizations can choose to “opt out” of the requirement.  Justice Sotomayor temporarily suspended this requirement, and the Justice Department quickly responded in opposition, making clear that the organization that filed the emergency challenge is not required to cover contraception for its employees. The Court should rule any day on whether the religiously affiliated organizations have to sign the form in order to opt out of the requirement while the case proceeds in lower courts.

Why it matters: The accommodation for religiously affiliated institutions and places of worship still exist; these organizations are simply objecting to having to sign a form by which they can opt out of the birth control benefit. The ruling did not affect the 27 million women who have access to birth control with no out-of-pocket costs thanks to the Affordable Care Act, but along with the Hobby Lobby case, this will show whether the Supreme Court is going to protect women’s ability to make their decisions about whether or not to use birth control.


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