Michaud: The murky depths of the Hobby Lobby decision

Customers at a Hobby Lobby store in Denver

Customers at a Hobby Lobby store in Denver on May 22, 2013. (Credit: AP)

Anne Michaud

Portrait of Newsday editorial board member Anne Michaud Anne Michaud

Anne Michaud is the interactive editor for Newsday Opinion. She

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These days, my email is filled with outrage from Democrats promising to pass legislation to reverse the Supreme Court's Hobby Lobby ruling. Meanwhile, Republicans are just as indignant about claims that they're engaged in a "war on women."

All of it feels like election year vote-trawling. So, for the record, I decided to look at the murkiness around the court's controversial decision.

Murky issue No. 1: The ruling affects only employees of the Hobby Lobby craft supplies chain. Not true. The prevailing wisdom is that closely held companies with a sincere religious belief can follow the same course. And, 71 other for-profit companies have challenged the Affordable Care Act's contraceptive mandate in court since February 2012, according to the National Women's Law Center. Most of the cases are pending. Anyone who's not a Supreme Court justice could be forgiven for not knowing how widely this decision will apply. In written arguments, the justices themselves disagree. Writing for the majority, Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. referred to the ruling's "narrow function." But in her dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg called it "a decision of startling breadth."

Murky issue No. 2: The ruling extends to all contraception. Not true. Hobby Lobby objected to four of the 20 contraceptives approved by the Food and Drug Administration. They are Plan B and Ella, which can prevent pregnancy if taken shortly after unprotected sex, and two types of intrauterine devices. Abortion opponents and the medical community disagree on what constitutes pregnancy. The former say pregnancy begins with a fertilized egg, and the latter, with implantation of the egg in a woman's uterus. IUDs are believed to prevent implantation. So, Hobby Lobby's lawyers argued that these four forms of contraception are equivalent to abortion and objected on moral grounds to covering them as part of employees' health insurance.

Murky issue No. 3: Employees will have to pay for their own contraceptives. Theoretically, for companies with moral objections, their insurers will provide the drugs and services directly to the employees. This is the accommodation that the Obama administration made for religious groups, which balked at paying for birth control. However, the Little Sisters of the Poor, a group of nuns who care for low-income elderly, calls this accommodation a gimmick and is challenging it in court. So contraceptive coverage may be eroded further, and that may get expensive for individuals. As Ginsburg noted, at $1,000, an IUD can represent a month's wages for a woman making minimum wage.

Murky issue No. 4: If I work for an employer who objects to the contraceptives, but I have a third party cover them, my employer will know and it will affect my job. In theory, health decisions are private. But will women risk their jobs over an IUD or a Plan B pill? Highly unlikely.

Murky issue No. 5: This ruling will lead to more abortion. That's possible if women opt for a less effective means of birth control, or if they can't pay out of pocket for the more potent methods. The four "objectionable" forms of contraceptives are much stronger preventions than the other 16. According to the Guttmacher Institute, which researches and advocates for abortion rights, hormonal IUDs can be 45 times more effective in preventing pregnancy than oral contraceptives, and 90 times more effective than male condoms. The New England Journal of Medicine has published similar figures. Guttmacher says that half of all U.S. pregnancies, more than 3 million a year, are unintended. And 40 percent of unintended pregnancies end in abortion.

That's a tragic irony for Hobby Lobby and others who object to so-called abortifacient birth control. Murkier and murkier.

Anne Michaud is the interactive editor for Newsday Opinion.