Last week, a leaked draft of the Trump administration’s proposed policies on preventative healthcare presented young college-age women with an unsettling revelation: Their access to birth control via the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive mandate could soon be slashed.
According to the draft, the contraceptive mandate’s guarantees could be dramatically scaled back in a misguided effort to defend religious freedom. The policy will allow any employer, including colleges and health insurance companies, to seek exemption from providing insurance plans that offer birth control to female employees on moral or religious grounds.
But the move to placate religious groups that have been protesting the mandate for years is about more than just religious liberty. It signals a step toward dismantling public access to contraception altogether. This is a dangerous scenario for young women of limited economic means across the country — one that will disproportionately affect young women pursuing a college education — as public funding for women’s health organizations like Planned Parenthood faces serious threats.
It may be that most women attending college aren’t employed on a full-time basis, and thus, aren’t on an employer-provided insurance plan anyway. Nonetheless, the contraceptive mandate has allowed 67 percent of insured women to have access to free birth control. It is this access to birth control that allows young women to exert control over their bodies, giving them the freedom to pursue education or a career and put off having a family.
Simultaneously, roughly 80 percent of Planned Parenthood’s millions of nationwide patients receive contraceptive means through the women’s health organization, and are able to do so for free due to reimbursements from Medicaid that the organization receives. However, a bill recently signed into law by President Trump will allow states to withhold federal funding from the organization simply because it provides abortion services, even though no federal funding is appropriated to these services. This could result in the shutdown of local clinics that female college students across the country rely on to safely access care, and young women’s ability to access free birth control and crucial sexual health education could dwindle as a result of this.
Access to reproductive justice is, in no uncertain terms, an issue that affects college women arguably more than any other group. Many young women who have the privilege of pursuing higher education are financially dependent on parents whose sexual values may differ from those of their children, and who may be unwilling to financially support their children’s access to resources, such as contraceptives, that make bodily autonomy possible.
And of course, there is no denying that bodily autonomy for young women is what makes higher education possible. For generations, young women of reproductive age were barred from attending college and pursuing careers because the inaccessibility of birth control and abortion cemented their roles as mothers and household caretakers at a young age.
Today, this makes confidential and comprehensive insurance plans as well as access to publicly funded women’s health organizations all the more crucial, lest society run the risk of undoing generations of progress.
This latest attack on the contraceptive mandate could become effective as soon as the policy receives approval from the Federal Office of Management and Budget. The religious liberty exemption has been widely criticized by many civil liberties and women’s rights groups that point out that prioritizing Christian values over a woman’s right to bodily autonomy is unconstitutional, and ironically marks a violation of women’s right to religious liberty.
After all, it seems worth reminding opponents of birth control access and the contraceptive mandate that religious freedom refers to individual rights to expression, as opposed to forcing others to live according to one’s individual beliefs. At the same time, objective academic studies continue to reveal the large-scale economic benefits to broadening birth control access. In this sense, it seems that in failing to protect the rights and dignities of women of reproductive age, the federal government could also be neglecting societal progress as a whole.
USC’s convenient location in downtown Los Angeles makes access to free or affordable birth control at Planned Parenthood or other women’s health clinics a short ride away, but for students who may lack the resources to conveniently leave campus, access to birth control at the Engemann Student Health Center could be more complicated, and could largely depend on students’ family insurance plans.
In a unique climate where mounting challenges to public access to birth control run parallel to mounting support for over-the-counter birth control pills, USC must do its part to connect students of all socioeconomic backgrounds to the resources they need to be on an equal playing field with their male peers, who do not face the same financial or medical burdens on their bodies, and subsequently their futures. In failing to secure access to such resources, the University runs the risk of losing a range of academic talent among its population of female students.