The Trump administration’s decision Friday to roll back the Obamacare mandate that insurance plans cover contraception sparked strong reactions in Georgia, driving home a fundamental rift in the state and the nation.
The long-expected move by the Department of Health and Human Services could mean many American women would no longer have access to birth control free of charge. It allows a much broader group of employers and insurers to claim religious or moral grounds in exempting themselves from the mandate to cover birth control under the Affordable Care Act.
The new exemption for religious objections takes effect immediately, and it now includes nonprofit organizations as well as for-profit companies, even ones that are publicly traded. Also included are institutions of higher education that arrange for insurance for their students, as well as individuals whose employers are willing to provide health plans consistent with their beliefs.
A separate section covers moral objections, allowing exemptions under similar circumstances except for publicly traded companies. It was unclear exactly how many Georgians would be affected. But they have strong opinions.
“The use of contraception is not extreme, it’s a part of most Georgians’ lives,” said Megan Gordon, public affairs coordinator for the Feminist Women’s Health Center in Atlanta. “There are a variety of reproductive health issues that hormonal contraception helps with. It’s also used by new parents to allow time for full recovery after birth in addition to preventing pregnancy. So access to contraception is something that most Georgians will be looking for. It’s really not fair that this health care issue should be politicized.”
Gerald Harris, the Georgia-based editor of the Christian Index, took heart, saying the Trump administration was restoring “true religious freedom.”
“I have feared that there are those in the government who want to restrict our religious freedom to the four walls of the church,” Harris said. “But this action demonstrates a respect for religious freedom and promises that people can not only believe the tenets of their faith, but have the freedom to exercise their faith in the marketplace.”
Issues such as birth control mandates and exemptions have been touchy with Georgia’s ruling Republican Party. Efforts in Georgia to adopt a religious freedom measure on the state level have met with controversy.
The issues divide the party’s two bases: social conservatives with a credo of religious freedom and the business community that fears such measures will chase away commercial opportunity. A spokeswoman for Gov. Nathan Deal did not respond to an email request for comment on the birth control issue Friday, and state Attorney General Chris Carr could not be reached.
Camila Zolfaghari, the executive director of the Georgia Life Alliance, said the organization had no position on birth control, per se. But to the extent that it might apply to morning-after pills, she said, “we celebrate this move today.”
From the beginning of the mandate, it has met opposition.
The Southern Baptist Convention passed a resolution implicitly condemning it. It called on the Obama administration “to uphold the constitutional protections accorded people of faith to provide healthcare for their employees that is consistent with their core religious beliefs.”
And in 2014, when the company Hobby Lobby went to court to withhold coverage for contraceptives that it believed could cause abortion, Georgia’s then-attorney general, Sam Olens, joined with 19 other conservative states going to bat for the company.
But among a dozen Georgia women interviewed Friday in generally conservative Dunwoody, there wasn’t much division. The women, interviewed at random at Perimeter Mall, all said they opposed the administration’s change.
Jennifer Casey of Dacula, interviewed with her husband, Vince, is Catholic and does not use birth control. However, she said, “It’s not up to us to tell people what to do with their bodies.”
Vince Casey echoed the sentiment, saying he thought it was unfair that men could have Viagra covered by insurance but women might have to pay out of pocket for birth control.
“It’s just a dumb rule,” he said.
Betty Ann Blake, who lives in Alpharetta, said she doesn’t think a CEO’s religious beliefs should have any impact on the lives of employees.
“Everybody should have their own, individual rights,” she said. “Companies should not be able to tell them how to take care of their bodies.”
Administration officials estimated that 120,000 women at most will lose access to free contraceptives. Critics predict far more women will be affected by the rule. The critics have also said that unintended births will rise as a result, costing money from unfunded care.
Senior Health and Human Services officials, briefing reporters early on condition of anonymity, said the change will still leave “99.9 percent of women” with access to free birth control through their insurance.
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Staff writer Jill Vejnoska and The Washington Post contributed to this article.