By A. GRACE STEIG
March 20, 2012
Arizona women face another assault on reproductive rights, in the form of a bill advancing in the State Legislation. The unprecedented House Bill 2625 would jeopardize health insurance coverage and even job security. Nationally, the Obama administration’s contraception mandate, requiring employers to provide insurance coverage for contraception, includes a wide exemption for faith-based employers, but not wide enough to placate Arizona’s raging lawmakers. No longer content to limit the denial of women’s health coverage to churches, State Representative Debbie Lesko (R-Glendale) has sponsored a bill to allow for-profit businesses and corporations to do the same. The pending bill would allow any employer with a religious or moral objection to refuse insurance coverage for birth control, except in cases where the employee proves she needs it for a medical condition apart from pregnancy prevention. The potential scope of the bill is staggering. An owner of any Arizona company, from a branch of a fast-food chain to a large corporation, would be empowered to insure – or not – based on personal beliefs.
One of the liberties severely deligitimized by the bill is a woman’s right to privacy. In the case of non-contraceptive contraception needs, an employee would be required to reveal her medical condition to her employer. Governor Jan Brewer conceded that she could imagine the forced disclosure to be “a little bit uncomfortable for women.” A more compelling reaction came in one testimony before the Senate committee, by mental health worker Liza Love. She disclosed that she takes birth control to treat endemetriosis, a painful disorder in which cells from the uterus grow excessively in other areas. Though Love revealed her condition, she stressed that sharing or not sharing medical history remains a personal, private choice: “That’s nothing that you as my employer … have a right to know.” To force a woman employee to justify her medical treatment undermines the workplace and personally shames and degrades her before her employer.
The bill proves even more degrading. Women employees may find themselves unceremoniously removed from their workplaces for taking birth control, even if they fund it themselves. As the ACLU shares, the bill will allow employers with a moral objection to birth control to fire an employee who procures contraception by means other than the company’s medical insurance. Paying medical costs out of pocket becomes that much more difficult when you lose your job because of it.
The bill’s sponsor, Majority Whip Debbie Lesko, resorts to nostalgic (read: bafflingly outdated) hyperbole when addressing its premise: “I believe we live in America. We don’t live in the Soviet Union. So, government should not be telling the organizations or mom-and-pop employers to do something against their moral beliefs.” Moving past the illogic of declaring contraceptive freedom to be Soviet, we should read in Lesko’s words a frightening redefinition of liberty and personhood. In her statement, she endows “organizations and mom-and-pop employers” with certain personal rights, rights that are not guaranteed the women who work for them. In effect, she holds (in answer to the oft-debated question) that businesses are people, but their employees are – not. By invoking America she bars all debate as unpatriotic and frames the bill as a national, not a state, imperative. Furthermore, by placing “America” first in her statement, she implies that what follows is a fulfillment the country’s values. The bill’s denial of women’s rights is now held to be a feature present – nay, necessary – in American life.
The bill has, rightly, been viewed as another link in a chain of state legislation seeking to divide voters over issues of women’s health. Catholics and social conservatives have mobilized in support of the Republican-sponsored bill. Gov. Brewer, perplexingly, suspects a “Democratic ploy” in the controversy surrounding the bill, which might unjustly alienate Arizona women from the Republican Party. If women are alienated, however, there is nothing unjust about their reaction. In a quest for partisan backing on a federal level, certain Republicans are willing to submit women to this humiliating denial of health coverage and privacy. Anjali Abraham, Public Policy Director for the ACLU, urges lawmakers to consider the local effects of this national debate: “If they’re looking for some sort of tussle with the federal government, I just wish they would keep in mind the consequences for Arizona women and families because they’re the ones that are ultimately hurt by this bill.”
Perhaps ironically, it is this intentionally brewed controversy that could doom the bill. As reported in The Huffington Post, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) stated in an interview on Sunday that he is “confident” that the bill will not be passed, or that if it reached the governor’s desk “it would be vetoed.” As for what the bill’s existence implies for women’s rights, he nodded to a suspected Republican focus on social issues as an election-year tool. When faced with a direct question about a potential “war on women” by Republicans he replied, “I think we need to fix that.” He echoed the certitude of many members of the Democratic and Republican Parties that “We need to get off of that issue [of contraception],” in favor of a return to a discussion on “jobs and the economy.” The bill is another partisan attack in a heated election year, another example of the collateral damage caused to women’s medical rights.
Despite McCain’s certainty of the Lesko bill’s defeat, it has already passed approval from the Arizona House and a Senate committee. It next faces a vote in the Republican-led Senate. Ultimately, if it passes the Senate vote, Gov. Brewer may choose to veto it or sign it into effect. The governor has refused to give her position on the bill.
A. Grace Steig is a freshman in Yale College. She is the Copy Editor for Broad Recognition.