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US Supreme Court takes up contraception finance restriction

Members of religious groups protested outside the US Supreme Court in 2016 as it considered a case involving restrictions on birth control
Members of religious groups protested outside the US Supreme Court in 2016 as it considered a case involving restrictions on birth control SAUL LOEB AFP/File
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Washington (AFP)

The US Supreme Court appeared divided Wednesday as it examined a reform undertaken by the Trump administration that restricts women's access to free birth control in the name of religion.

All but one of the nine judges assessed the case from their homes by telephone because of the coronavirus lockdown.

Liberal judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg, 87, took part from a hospital in Baltimore, where she was admitted for treatment of a gallbladder infection.

"You have just tossed entirely to the wind what Congress thought was essential, that women be provided these services with no hassle, no cost to them," Ginsburg told the lawyer representing the administration.

The case involves one of the main points of the ground-breaking health care reform law known as Obamacare, which was enacted in 2010. The clause in question obliged employers providing medical insurance for their workers to include coverage for birth control.

Defenders of the law say it benefitted more than 56 million women who until then got little reimbursement or none when they bought birth control pills or IUDs. But conservative groups challenged the change as soon as it came into effect.

In 2014, the Supreme Court sided with employers who argued they did not want to provide such coverage because it clashed with their religious values.

- With help from evangelicals -

The rule was changed so that employers with such objections simply had to notify authorities of their position. Then, public money or insurers would cover the cost of contraception measures.

But religious organizations that are also employers, including the Little Sisters of the Poor, a Catholic order, filed suit. They argued that even having to notify the authorities of their objection made them complicit to something they objected to.

The case went before the high court again in 2016. It was down to eight justices at that point and ended up divided into equal conservative and liberal camps and failed to reach a decision.

After Donald Trump took over as president in 2017 with the support of evangelical Christians, the administration changed the law so that employers citing "sincere moral or religious" objections to contraception did not have to provide coverage for it and this time there was no allowance for public money or insurers to step in.

In 2018, the government estimated that this change would deny cost-free access to contraception for 70,000 to 126,000 women. Paying for birth control pills out of pocket can run $600 to $1,000 a year.

But this reform by the Trump administration was blocked in the courts. So it ended up before the Supreme Court.

Since coming to power Trump has appointed two conservatives to the Supreme Court and that could break the 4-4, conservative-liberal tie that the court arrived at four years ago.

Besides Ginsburg, who is known as a fierce advocate of women's rights, the other three progressives in the court also appeared to disapprove of the Trump administration reform during Wednesday's session.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor, for instance, asked the lawyer representing the Little Sisters of the Poor what would happen if an employer refused to finance a hypothetical vaccine against the coronavirus on religious grounds.

Conservatives on the court seemed to back the religious groups, with Justice Brett Kavanaugh saying he found the Trump administration's reform "reasonable."

Normally, the court would render a decision by the end of the June but this is not a given now because of the pandemic.

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