The Next Phase of the Birth Control War: Religious Discrimination Lawsuits
As more states push bills to strip family planning funding from Planned Parenthoods, or relocate funding so that Planned Parenthood affiliates are last in line, other clinics that provide care to low-income and uninsured residents will be forced to shoulder the burden of reproductive health care services, especially when it comes to offering birth control.
Yet, as a case in Florida shows us, those clinics are now being drawn into the war on contraception thanks to “pro-life” medical specialists who are seeking positions within those networks with absolutely no intention of providing the full range of services the clinics were set up to offer. And sadly, refusing to hire these people won’t work as then you’d be facing a discrimination lawsuit.
The Florida Lawsuit
Sara Hellwege applied for a job at Tampa Family Health Centers (TFHC), but was turned down. According to lawyers representing Hellwege, by refusing her an interview after noting that she was a member of the American Association of Pro-Life Obstetricians and Gynecologists (AAPLOG) and learning that she would refuse to offer hormonal contraception, TFHC has discriminated against her on the basis of her religion.
“Hellwege’s lawsuit accuses TFHC of religious discrimination, and violating both state and federal laws that protect medical professionals from being forced to participate in abortions,” reports Lifesite News. “She is seeking $400,000 in damages, plus a fine of at least $75,000 and forfeiture of all federal funding until the company aligns its employment policies with anti-discrimination laws.”
The crux of the lawsuit rides on what Alliance Defending Freedom, the far right legal group representing Hellwege, calls a series of “smoking gun” emails. In the first email, Hellwege asks if the health system is still looking for Certified Nurse Midwives (CNM) and offers her resume. After the Human Resources contact responds that he has submitted her resume to the open positions, he asks if her membership in AAPLOG would cause her to turn down an interview if one was offered.
“Yes, I am a member of AAPLOG,” she responds. “Due to religious guidelines I am able to counsel women regarding all forms of contraception, however, cannot RX it unless pathology exists [ie: will not prescribe hormonal birth control unless it is to treat a medical condition] however have no issues with barrier methods or sterilization.” She then asks if she can apply for a position that is specifically with pregnant women and those giving birth, rather than well-women and post partum care (which would eliminate her from needing to offer birth control. The HR contact responds back that there are no pregnancy and birthing only positions, so they wouldn’t be offering an interview.
Was the health center violating discrimination law by refusing to offer Hellwege an interview, as she and ADF allege? Or was TFHC skipping over a candidate who, by virtue of stating that she would not be willing to perform one of the duties of her job, and who asked if there was a different position available that was more suited to her beliefs, showed that she was not in fact the most qualified candidate in the pool?
A look at the form that all employees for the center are asked to fill out makes it clear that part of the application process is stating upfront: “Will you be willing to and able to perform all of the tasks required of the job you are applying for?”
The Tampa Family Health Center’s primary reason for existing is to get health care to low income populations in Florida, which is often either pediatrics or well-women care. To have one of their nurse midwives on staff only to do prenatal care and delivery would be a huge drain on the resources of a clinic where much of its funding comes from Title X funds–but that might be exactly the goal.
Court Battle a Win-Win for Anti-Abortion Campaigners
By sending in applicants that have no intention of actually distributing the most effective forms of birth control (and to be clear, a clinic accepting Title X funds cannot offer abortion), contraception opponents then cut off access for the most impoverished populations. Due to lack of income, it would be a massive hardship to get to a different clinic in order to fill a prescription, making it that much more difficult for a person on a low income to prevent pregnancy.
Now that so many Planned Parenthoods are losing access to their own Title X funds, seeking an attack on non-Planned Parenthood affiliated centers is the next logical step for abortion foes, despite the fact that many abortion opponents were using the existence of these alternative health centers to justify defunding Planned Parenthood in the first place. In essence, the goal is to cut off birth control access all together for those who can’t afford it out of pocket. Filling the clinics with pro-life medical personnel (just like they have been recruiting pro-life pharmacists to refuse to fill prescriptions) is the perfect way to do it.
This of course is the inevitable fall-out of the Hobby Lobby ruling. The Supreme Court gave the stamp of approval on the mistaken idea that hormonal birth control could potentially be mini-abortions and that holding that belief is a tenant of one’s faith and must be protected from any form of discrimination. It was only a matter of time before lawsuits were filed expanding that definition to other arenas beyond mere insurance coverage.
As the Hellweg example shows, the situation is a win/win for social conservatives. If Hellweg is hired, less people get access to contraception. If she is not, they sue the center for discrimination. Even if they don’t win the lawsuit, they have drained the clinic of much needed money while it fights the accusations in court, and they have an example to use to frighten similar federally funded health centers with the same action. If anti-abortion groups do win, the clinic will likely run out of financial resources and leave a gaping hole in care for the city’s underserved population. It’s a hole that no doubt a religious-based clinic would be more than willing to step in and fill, probably while also withholding contraception.
Either way, the pro-life groups will do everything possible to get birth control off the shelves. Sadly, it will be people on the lowest incomes who will be the most immediately and adversely affected, and all because a faction of religious zealots really, really hate contraception.
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