I don’t know about you, but I can easily say that I have had better Mondays than I did last week. After the Supreme Court struck down buffer zones around abortion clinics,the Hobby Lobby decision only further disappointed and frightened us about the future of reproductive access in this country.
So for this week, the Feministing Five will be provide expert answers from a leading authority on reproductive rights and freedom, Louise Melling, a Deputy Legal Director of the ACLU and the Director of its Center for Liberty — which houses the ACLU’s Reproductive Freedom Project. The RFP provides critical resources for folks across the country to help realize what their rights are and how to advocate to protect them. My personal favorite tool that they provide is this fantastic comic “Stealth Attack” by Jen Sorensen on what you need to know about new restrictive abortion laws.
Louise has an impressive history of using the law to stand up for reproductive justice and so we were so grateful that she was able to fit us in for a quick conversation about the implications of Hobby Lobby and where we are heading from here.
And now without further ado, the Feministing Five with Louise Melling!
Suzanna Bobadilla: It’s been a rough week since the Supreme Court released its Hobby Lobby decision. How is your team doing over at the ACLU?
Louise Melling: Obviously we are deeply disappointed by this decision. I think there are a number of ways the decision is unprecedented and therefore warrants attention. I think the decision is unprecedented in that it says for the first time ever that employers can invoke their religious belief as a basis for denying employes benefits they were guaranteed by law. I think the decision is unprecedented in terms of how the Court looks at and understands what constitutes a substantial burden and that’s a fairly technical point but it will have implications for cases to come. I think it’s noteworthy in the sense that I talk about it as possibly being another case in what I refer to as exceptionalism, which is different treatment for matters that are related to women and reproductive rights and equality. Alito goes out of his way to say, “This decision is about contraception only. This isn’t about other health care mandates or vaccines. This isn’t about discrimination in hiring.” So, what is this? This is how contraception is again different and how other things he suggests will get more protection. So in all of those ways the decision is troubling.
SB: One of the things that I have been thinking about as someone who is fairly early in my career is how I might have to switch jobs a couple times right when access to contraception is particularly important. With so much talk about how laws are changing on a federal and national level, do you have suggestions on where people can know what their reproductive rights are?
Louise: Well first of all, the good news is that from my understanding and expectation is that most employers will continue to provide coverage, that the overwhelming majority of the American public in all regards believes that this benefit is an important one and that companies should not be able to take it away from women. And so I think most companies will continue to provide. The first place to check obviously is with your employer to see whether they are required to cover and whether they will continue to cover.
In terms of what people can do, it’s always important to know what your rights are and then assert them. One way to do that in the face of this ruling is for people to reach out to members of Congress and to call on Congress to come up with a fix.
SB: Do you have additional suggestions on where people can also apply their activism?
Louise: People can also put pressure, for the extent that they can, on their employers to encourage them to stand by and stand up for the right, and make sure that they continue to do the right thing by their employees and their dependents. There are certainly employers who have voluntarily covered contraception, there are certainly employers who are covering by virtue of what happens in their states. Many states have laws that say if you cover prescriptions drugs in your employment plan, than you have to cover contraception as a way to try to achieve parity for women so there is ample compliance in that regard.
SB: As we wrap up our conversation, could you share with us some words of encouragement for where the movement might head next?
Louise: A lot things happen on the state level in terms of laws; I think it’s incredibly important for people to be active on the state level. I think it’s incredibly important to pay attention to state elections and to what measures are passing in state legislatures. State legislatures, as people can hear from the newspapers, can be a force for trying to restrict reproductive rights. But state legislatures can also, if the right people are in office and if the right pressure is applied, they can be a force for good. Remember the states are the ones who took a leadership role in trying to ensure that women had access to contraception insurance plans.
One other thing that we’ve seen in the past year or two are increased instances of outrage and people speaking out in support of reproductive rights. That is critical because as I say, no movement that is silent can win. If we are silent, why should politicians, why should healthcare providers, why should insurance companies stand up for us, if we don’t make our voices heard? That’s particularly true when our adversaries are extremely vocal.
SB: And finally, our traditional last question. You are stranded on a desert island and you get to take with you one food, one drink, and one feminist. What do you pick?
Louise: One drink is probably coffee, which is a silly choice given that there would be some serious issues of survival and medicine and other things. My food would be a peach or a donut, depends on the day. My feminist, if she were alive — I would bring my mother because she was funny and low key and stood up.
Suzanna Bobadilla’s current superhero is RBG.