Collective Outrage: Commentary on This Week's Supreme Court Decisions

Supreme Court Justices

By Rachel Walden — July 2, 2014

This week, the Supreme Court issued two extremely disappointing decisions with significant negative implications for women’s health and reproductive rights.

The first — and the one that hits us closest to home — was the McCullen v. Coakley ruling that struck down Massachusetts’s abortion clinic buffer zone. OBOS’s home state had a law making it a crime to stand on a public road or sidewalk within 35 feet of any abortion clinic in the state. The purpose was to allow free access to abortion clinics without the yelling, physical intimidation, and other tactics used by abortion opponents who get close to women and try to scare and shame them away from abortion. The law was passed after two clinic workers were shot and killed at a Brookline clinic in 1994.

For a basic explanation of the Court’s decision, see Amy Howe’s “in plain English” post at SCOTUSblog. The decision largely centered on First Amendment rights to free speech, and though it was unanimous, there was some disagreement: Four of the justices said there shouldn’t be any buffer zones, while the other five said Massachusetts could go back and create another, albeit smaller, buffer zone.

Advocates for the buffer zone have argued that what women seeking abortion are subjected to outside of clinics is not the simple “gentle counseling” zone opponents claim. Many, including @clinicescort, took to Twitter with the hashtags #notcounseling and #protectthezone to describe what really happens outside clinics:

In Time, Aaron Gouveia writes about the decision, informed by his and his wife’s experience getting a medically recommended abortion in Massachusetts:

Too much space? With all due respect to Justice Kagan, 35 feet wasn’t nearly enough to block out the horror and insults while running the gauntlet that that day at the hands of those whose free speech you seek to protect.

Even after 35 feet and four years later, my wife and I still hear them.

The NOW Foundation minced no words about the needs for the zone and the goals of “sidewalk counselors:”

There can be no other way to describe in a single word what antiabortion protesters have engaged in for four decades and that is terrorism. Their goals were – and remain to this day – to terrorize health care providers, women who seek reproductive health care services and their allies to achieve their ideological and political goals.

Meanwhile, as Dahlia Lithwick at Slate and others have pointed out, “The justices don’t like Massachusetts’ buffer zones. But they’re fine with the one around the Supreme Court.” The zone around the Court is actually much bigger than the 35-foot zone protecting Massachusetts clinics.

Getting more attention has been the Hobby Lobby case, which was decided in a way that lets for-profit companies deny employees health coverage based on the supposed religious objections of the company. Nevermind that *corporations* aren’t really people and therefore can’t really have religion. Specifically, Hobby Lobby won the right to refuse to have its employee health insurance cover certain forms of no-cost contraception, including IUDs.

Hobby Lobby’s objection to these and emergency contraception is based on a scientifically inaccurate belief that these methods are equivalent to abortion; put simply, they are not. As Aaron E. Carroll writes, the Court’s apparent validation of these views is likely to further reduce access to contraception.

In an excellent commentary for SCOTUSblog, Dawn Johnsen further explains consequences of the Court’s decision:

The Court’s ruling means that for a woman adversely affected, her boss’s religious beliefs will, at least for a time, be on that list of contributing factors that determine her choice of method. Especially for women of limited economic means — like the full-time minimum wage worker to whom Justice Ginsburg referred who cannot possibly afford a month’s salary for an IUD — the religious views of their bosses (or the bosses of their spouse or parent) may now trump their own religious beliefs, as well as needs that flow from their own health, family, and life circumstances.

Jaeah Lee at Mother Jones has noted that the implications of the case reach beyond Hobby Lobby employees; 71 other corporations have challenged the ACA’s contraceptive mandate in court; we assume that these companies will now also deny coverage.

Kimberly Inez McGuire of National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health points out that the decision will hit some people harder than others:

Like any policy or decision that makes health care less affordable, and therefore harder to get, this decision will undoubtedly fall hardest on those already struggling to get the care they need: young women, women of color, low-income women, and those living in rural and underserved areas.

Likewise, Linda Goler Blount of Black Women’s Health Imperative and Elizabeth Dawes Gay have each pointed out how this decision will negatively impact black women. Dawes Gay writes:

For Black women, contraception is as much about reproductive autonomy as it is about health. Black women may rely on contraception to treat endometriosis, manage uterine fibroids, and quell PMS symptoms. Many others rely on it simply to prevent or space pregnancy which can be lifesaving for Black women, who are three times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than our white counterparts. For us, and so many women across the world, birth control is a matter of health and life. Allowing for-profit employers to deny contraceptive coverage to employees who work hard for their health care coverage makes accessing contraception more difficult and could very well impact the health and well-being of women across the nation.

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists has issued a statement that they are “profoundly disappointed” in the ruling, explaining that:

This decision inappropriately allows employers to interfere in women’s health care decisions. All health care decisions – including decisions about contraception – should be made by a woman and her doctor, based on the patient’s needs and her current health. Her employer’s religious beliefs should not overrule her doctor’s advice.

Moreover, contraceptives are essential health care for women and should not be treated differently than other, equally important parts of comprehensive care for women, including well-woman visits, preconception care visits, cervical and breast cancer screenings, and other needed health care services.

For further commentary on this decision, see this list of WAM! participant pieces on the topic.

We’ll just leave you with this bit from John Oliver, speaking prior to the decision.

And one final note: Given these decisions, we’re not too thrilled to see that the Court plans to hear a case on the rights of pregnant workers in its next term.

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