Early this month, the Trump administration made good on its promise to roll back the Affordable Care Act’s contraception coverage mandate. The Supreme Court’s 2014 decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby allowed “closely held” private companies and religious organizations to refuse to cover birth control in their employee health insurance plans, and on Oct. 6, Trump's Department of Health and Human Services issued two new rules that allow almost any employer to claim a religious or moral exemption in order to deny contraceptive coverage.
The University of Notre Dame is one of the first and most prominent organizations to take advantage of the new loophole. On Friday, Indiana Public Media reports, Notre Dame notified employees and students that starting next year—on Jan. 1, 2018, and Aug. 15, 2018, respectively—birth control will no longer be covered under the insurance plans the university offers. Thousands of Indiana women stand to lose their contraception coverage in coming months, putting them on the hook for a greater risk of unwanted pregnancies or, if they choose to pay out of pocket, thousands of dollars in expenses their male colleagues will never have to pay.
Because the university is affiliated with the Catholic Church, which prohibits the use of all modern contraception, it didn’t offer standard health insurance plans with birth-control coverage even before the change. Instead, Notre Dame students and employees could use a third-party service to include no-cost birth control in their existing university-provided health insurance plans. This setup was one of the Obama administration’s accommodations for religious organizations under the Affordable Care Act: Rather than force religious employers to pay into the premiums that indirectly funded birth control, the government footed the contraception bill. All Notre Dame had to do under the law was submit a waiver stating its religious objection, which would trigger the third-party services.
The university and other religiously-affiliated groups objected to that requirement, claiming that even signing the two-page form made them complicit in an immoral act. Notre Dame was one of several organizations that sued the government over the waiver. A federal judge appointed by George W. Bush rejected the university’s claim, writing that “Notre Dame wants to eat its cake, and have it still, at the expense of … the employees who will be affected.” He continued: “The government isn’t violating Notre Dame’s right to free exercise of religion by letting it opt out, or by arranging for third party contraception coverage.”
When the Supreme Court considered the issue, it made an inscrutable attempt to find middle ground. As part of that Supreme Court ruling, the religiously affiliated organizations that sued the Department of Health and Human Services over the mandate were supposed to find an acceptable compromise with the federal government. They never did.
Now, the Trump administration has completely abandoned the contraception mandate for any company that purports to have a mission incompatible with birth control coverage. In a statement given when the rollback was announced, Notre Dame’s president, the Rev. John I. Jenkins, said, “we welcome this reversal” because “critical issues of religious freedom were at stake.”
Notre Dame has now been included in the ACLU’s lawsuit against the Trump administration over the rollback; one of the plaintiffs of the suit, Kate Rochat, is a law student at the university. “No woman should ever be denied health care because her employer or university’s religious views are prioritized over her serious medical needs,” Rochat said in a statement.