Local & State Voices

Contraception and contradictions

Will Hobby Lobby now divest itself of mutual funds in employees’ 401(k) plans that include investments in companies that produce emergency contraceptive pills, intrauterine devices and drugs commonly used in abortions?

It’s a reasonable question given that the Christian-owned craft supply chain was so offended by the Affordable Care Act’s requirement that their health insurance plans provide access to contraception coverage that officials sued. The case is now before the United States Supreme Court. The Green family, which owns Hobby Lobby, says they have strong religious objections to the products and want to keep them out of their insurance plans. They claim the products can prevent a fertilized egg from implanting in a woman’s uterus. They consider that abortion.

Let’s be clear. Physicians and researchers refute that assertion. What the products actually do is delay ovulation or make it harder for sperm to reach the egg.

But here’s the rub. For years, Hobby Lobby actually covered in its health care plans the birth control methods it now objects to. “It was only in 2012, when the Greens considered filing a lawsuit against the Affordable Care Act, that they dropped these drugs from the plan,” Mother Jones magazine recently reported.

The magazine also pointed out the contradiction that Hobby Lobby, through its company-sponsored 401(k) plan where it liberally matches employees’ contributions, invests in companies that make the very devices Hobby Lobby owners claim to abhor – to the tune of more than $73 million. Among those companies are Teva Pharmaceutical Industries, which makes the Plan B morning-after pill and ParaGard, a copper IUD. Hobby Lobby's mutual funds also invest in two health insurance companies that cover surgical abortions, abortion drugs, and emergency contraception in their health care policies.

Myopia or hypocritical? You be the judge. But Hobby Lobby could have easily avoided investments in companies whose policies offend owners’ beliefs: They could have invested in mutual funds that screen out stocks that religious people object to. Mother Jones named two: The Timothy Plan and the Ave Maria Fund. A specialist in faith-based investing said the performances of these funds are about the same as if they had not been screened.

Hobby Lobby defenders contend that the investment issue and the insurance issue are different. They note that the investments and decisions within 401(k) plans are made by employees, not employers. The choices are provided by the administrator of the plan, offering a wide range of mutual funds. For Hobby Lobby to interfere, the advocates lament, would be tantamount to the company restricting employees’ personal choices.

And the company’s position on excluding contraception coverage in health care plans is not?

Regardless, this issue did not need to be decided by the high court. Companies who object to the contraception inclusion have an alternative that the health-care law allows. The companies can opt out of providing health insurance to all its employees, and pay a tax that would help subsidize its employees’ coverage through the exchanges or Medicaid. Experts say that would even be less expensive for the companies.

It’s hard to reconcile Hobby Lobby’s outrage about the Affordable Care Act with some of its past actions. Its moves look more political than religious. The Supreme Court stands to open a Pandora’s box of politically linked, religious/moral objections from companies that take offense to particular products or services, or to particular people or groups.

Women should especially pay attention to what the court case could portend. Our rights have been under assault. Politicians and others have sought to limit or take away our control over our bodies and livelihoods through legislation, policies and lawsuits.

It’s no surprise that the Centers for Disease Control would call modern contraception one of the top 10 greatest public health achievements of the 20th century. Access to such services has led to improved health outcomes and fewer unplanned pregnancies for women. It has, as a recent Guttmacher Institute survey noted, enabled women to support themselves financially, pursue an education and get and keep a job. In sum, it has helped families become more stable and secure.

Thus, the moves among some conservatives to remove or limit access to birth control are both misguided and dangerous. Justice Elena Kagan rightly noted during the Hobby Lobby arguments before her and the other justices that “Congress has given a statutory entitlement ... to women [that] includes contraceptive coverage. And when the employer says no that woman is quite directly, quite tangibly harmed.”