You’ve probably heard that the Supreme Court laid down a pretty bad decision on Monday in the Hobby Lobby case, essentially giving some corporations the right to deny coverage of certain types of contraception to their employees based on religious freedom.
We won’t know the exact impact of this ruling until we see how many of the eligible corporations (closely-held private companies that most are interpreting based on the IRS definition that they be 50 percent owned by five or less people) actually choose to use this right given to them by the Supreme Court on Monday. Nine out of 10 businesses are estimated to be closely held, and an estimated 52 percent of private sector employees work for closely held companies. So we’re talking about a potential impact on just a few thousand employees, or a few million, depending on how many businesses choose to exercise this right. We know that in addition to Hobby Lobby, there are at least 82 other companies who’ve already been challenging the Affordable Care Act’s birth control mandate.
While much proverbial ink has been spilled speculating about the impact this will have, few have talked about how women of color might fare under this ruling. On its face there is nothing about this ruling that singles out women of color. But because of our political and economic realities, women of color often bare the brunt of the negative impacts of restrictions on women’s health anyway. Here are three reasons why women of color may fare worse under this decision:
1. The Cost of Birth Control
Those who can’t afford to pay for their birth control out of pocket if their employers deny coverage will face the biggest challenges. Women of color are more likely to be low-income, and also more likely to work a minimum wage job. And as Justice Ginsberg pointed out in her dissent, getting an IUD could cost as much as an entire month’s rent working at the minimum wage. And let’s not forget that contraceptives aren’t only prescribed for preventing pregnancies—they’re also used to manage severe menstrual symptoms and conditions like polycystic ovarian syndrome and endometriosis. Women of color who are already struggling to make ends meet may face increased burdens. That could mean doing things like splitting one pack of pills between two women each month, as Kimberly Inez McGuire reports two Latina women living in South Texas have been doing.
Elizabeth Dawes Gay, writing at Ebony, elaborates on how this impacts black women specifically:
“In 2011, more than half of Black people were covered by private (usually employer-sponsored) health insurance, either through their own employer or that of a family member, and 57 million adult women of all races were covered through employer-sponsored insurance. If the behavior of companies like Hobby Lobby becomes the norm rather than the exception, it could impact contraceptive access for millions of people in the U.S. and have a disproportionate impact on Black women who, with lower income and wealth on average, may not be able to afford to pay for their contraception out-of-pocket.”
Renee Bracey Sherman also wrote about how this decision could affect Black women. For Asian-American and Pacific Islander women, already low rates of contraceptive use could be even lower if this decision places another economic barrier in their way.
2. The Risks of Unplanned Pregnancy
The risks of having to carry an unintended pregnancy to term are much higher for women of color, especially black women. Black women are four times more likely to die during childbirth than white women, which means potentially being unable to prevent a pregnancy due to the financial barriers put in place by their religious employers. And it’s not just death that women of color are at higher risk for during childbirth—it’s also infant mortality, low-infant birth weight and premature delivery—all things that pose significant long-term risks to the mother and child.
Women of color have already had to deal with a long history of reproductive control at the hands of employers and the government. From slave owners’ manipulation of Black women’s reproduction, to non-consensual sterilization of Latinas in public hospitals, to welfare reform and family caps limiting the number of children welfare recipients can have, women of color have long had to fight for the right to control their own reproduction. This case just adds another layer to controlling fertility, this time at the hands of employers.
At this point it’s no longer news that those in our communities who are the most vulnerable suffer the most when increased restrictions and barriers are put into place—and pregnancy and reproduction has been a hotbed of these kinds of restrictions over the last few years. As the Obama administration figures out how they might fill the gap left by this ruling (even the majority opinion, written by Justice Alito, offers this as a solution), we have to keep in mind that women of color are once again going to be relying on a safety net to get basic needs met. And that’s a safety net with more and more holes.