2020 has brought about several surprising and significant rulings from the Supreme Court of the United States. This year has had its share of left turns and disappointments -- and the Supreme Court’s ruling to restrict birth control access was certainly one of them. However, there were a few positive and unexpected rulings from SCOTUS this year.
Access to Birth Control Threatened
On July 8, 2020, the U.S. Supreme Court decided to uphold two Trump administration rules that allow employers and universities to deny employees and students access to contraception covered by insurance provided by the Affordable Care Act — essentially using religious or moral ground to discriminate.
In Little Sisters of the Poor Saints Peter and Paul Home v. Pennsylvania and Trump v. Pennsylvania, the court held that the Department of Health and Human Services may exclude contraception coverage from employer-provided health insurance.
In other words, the court ruled that bosses and universities should be able to decide — based on their own subjective beliefs — if their health insurance plans cover birth control.
While these “religious exemptions” intend to restrict access to birth control on the premise of objecting to pre-marital sex (which already oversteps the boundary to which employers and universities should have a say in individuals’ private personal lives), the effects are far-reaching and can have devastating consequences.
There are many people whose benefit to taking birth control extends beyond preventing pregnancy.
“Many people’s main reason for taking oral contraceptives is not to prevent pregnancy,” explained a Planned Parenthood clinician. “A patient might have endometriosis, which means the lining of the uterus builds up inside the body in places it shouldn’t.” This is one example of a health condition that can be “managed or controlled, for some patients, with birth control.”
The Supreme Court ruling essentially makes it legal for employers and universities to deny coverage for certain medications for employees and students based upon their assumptions about their health and their sex life.
Unfortunately, this was a strong defeat for reproductive justice. The court ruled 7-2, with only Ginsberg and Sotomayor dissenting.
However, we will be fighting to restore access at every future opportunity. Said President and CEO of Planned Parenthood Federation of American and Planned Parenthood Action Fund Alexis McGill Johnson, “We need more access to health care — not less. We will not back down from this fight, and we will not let politicians interfere with our ability to control our own bodies, lives, and futures.”
Abortion Access Defended and Restored
Although this recent decision regarding reproductive health care access is a setback, there have also been some positive decisions.
In June, the Supreme Court struck down Louisiana’s abortion restriction in June Medical Services v. Russo (formerly June Medical Services v. Gee). The case was brought by the Center for Reproductive Rights on behalf of several abortion providers.
Because the law in contention required abortion providers to have admitting privileges at a local hospital, the court recognized the restriction as identical to a Texas law the Court struck down four years ago in Whole Woman’s Health v Hellerstedt. It was under that precedent that the Court ruled that the Louisiana law was unconstitutional and was struck down. This precedent clearly establishes that it is unconstitutional to impose medically unnecessary laws that burden a person’s right to safe, legal abortion.
In late 2019, the Court struck down laws that intended to effectively make abortion illegal. In December, a Mississippi law banning abortion at 15 weeks was struck down, and in October, a federal judge blocked a near-total abortion ban in Alabama, citing that the law violated Supreme Court precedent.
Though these victories are cause for celebration, there are currently sixteen states with abortion restrictions, and new bills to restrict abortion access as well as basic reproductive health care access being proposed regularly across the nation.
Tribal Lands Returned
In a win for tribal rights, the Supreme Court decided 5-4 to return 19 million acres to Native Americans in Oklahoma. The decision ruled that a large part of Eastern Oklahoma, including parts of Tulsa, are considered tribal land.
The decision honors language from treaties and holds the treaties above state law.
Attorneys for the state of Oklahoma argued that the ruling would allow for any Native people convicted under state law to appeal their conviction. However, the court rejected this argument, citing a lack of data and the fact that any convictions that could be appealed would come from state encroachment of Native sovereignty.
“Today we are asked whether the land these treaties promised remains an Indian reservation for the purposes of federal criminal law,” Justice Neil Gorusch wrote. “Because Congress has not said otherwise, we hold the government to its word.”
Immigrant Rights Upheld in DACA ruling
On June 18, the U.S. Supreme Court, led by Justice John Roberts, ruled in a 5-4 vote against the administration’s attempt to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, holding it was arbitrary and capricious. DACA has enabled more than 600,000 “Dreamers” who were born abroad and brought to the U.S. as children to remain in the U.S.
The ruling stated that the DACA rule (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, sometimes referred to as the “dreamers act”) was constitutional and the Trump administration’s moves to rescind the program in 2017 was unlawful.
This is a big win for Dreamers, those eligible for DACA, for undocumented immigrants, and for the entire nation. You can learn more about this decision and where we go from here at: United We Dream, UnidosUS,OneAmerica, iAmerica, and Define American.
Court Rules on the Side of LGBTQ Employees
The U.S. Supreme Court, in a landmark win for LGBTQ people in this country, ruled that it is a violation of federal law to fire someone because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. This protection now extends to all LGBTQ people in every state in the country, and likely voids the administration’s decision last month.
In its opinion, SCOTUS held that “An employer who fires an individual merely for being gay or transgender defies the law.” This historic 6-3 decision was written by Justice Neil Gorsuch, who was appointed by President Trump and generally considered among the conservative block on the court.
Hannah Brass Greer, Chief Legal Counsel said, “I’m thinking of the heroes that made today possible – the plaintiffs in these three cases, Aimee Stephens, Don Zarda, and Gerald Bostock; the legal team, including trans attorneys Chase Strangio and Gabriel Arkles, who argued these cases; and the many trans and queer people who paved the way to this victory. This is an incredible win, especially during Pride Month. It is also good to remind folks that the first Pride was a riot against oppression and violence, led by trans people of color.”
Looking Ahead for Abortion Access in Indiana
Earlier in July the Supreme Court declined to take up any further abortion access cases, rejecting hearings for two challenges to Indiana laws -- one which requires an ultrasound and an 18-hour waiting period before a patient can obtain an abortion, and another that requires minors to obtain parental consent before an abortion procedure.
The District Court in Indiana ruled in our favor finding the abortion complications reporting law unconstitutional. The court agreed with us and found the law unconstitutionally vague and recognized it for what it is – an attempt to further stigmatize abortion care as well as continue the false narrative that abortion is dangerous.