5 Ways the Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Cases Affect Black Women


Today, the Supreme Court hears oral arguments in what has been dubbed the Hobby Lobby case, a catch-all name for two separate cases—Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. v. Sebelius and Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp. v. Sebelius.

The cases could determine whether employers can be exempted on religious grounds from a mandate of the Affordable Care Act that their health insurance coverage for employees include contraception as part of traditional preventive care.

The husband-and-wife owners of the Hobby Lobby chain of craft stores argue in court papers that they do not want their employee health insurance plan to include emergency contraception that could “end human life after conception.” That is a reference to the type of contraception known as the morning-after pill.


Conestoga goes further in its pleadings, not wanting to cover contraception that could “take a human life” or “prevent its creation through drugs and intrauterine devices.”

The cases have been framed as a battle between employers’ religious freedom and employees’ right to privacy—including a right of employees to make their own health care choices—but the specifics are more complex than that. There are those who believe that a victory for employers in the two cases would open a Pandora’s box, with the ultimate result that employers could pick and choose what they would not cover—even something such as cancer treatment—if they determined that offering a particular coverage would offend religious beliefs.


But in the two cases, there are particular issues at stake for black women. Here are five facts that underscore why the outcome matters to black women. 

Black women are statistically the least likely to have used emergency contraception. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only 7.9 percent of black women have ever used a form of emergency contraception. But that low level of use does not mean that black women do not want to have access to such birth control. Access and cost remain significant barriers, with resulting long-term effects on black women and their communities.


Low-income teenagers already have a tougher time obtaining emergency contraception. Emergency contraception is the issue at the heart of Hobby Lobby: whether a young woman or teenager working for that company has the right to have emergency contraception—such as Plan B or, in some cases, an IUD—covered by the insurance provided by her employer. Studies have  shown that teenagers in low-income communities are more likely to have difficulty obtaining emergency contraception than their peers in more affluent communities.

According to an analysis of research by Boston Medical Center, “While pharmacies in underserved communities are just as likely to stock the morning-after pill as pharmacies in more affluent ones, researchers from Boston Medical Center found that pharmacists in poorer areas were more often misinformed about the law and mistakenly were denying 17-year-old girls access to Plan B.” Plan B, the most popular form of emergency contraception, is supposed to be available over the counter for women of all ages, while others are available only with a prescription. Lack of access to over-the-counter emergency contraception for girls in poor communities makes insurance coverage of such care all the more important.


Emergency contraception can benefit survivors of sexual assault. A 2011 study by Black Women’s Blueprint found that 60 percent of black girls had experienced sexual abuse before the age of 18. The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network found that 18.8 percent of black women have been victims of rape or attempted rape at some point. The impact of an unwanted pregnancy on rape survivors has been one of the biggest issues of debate regarding emergency contraception.

After Roman Catholic hospitals in Germany refused to prescribe emergency contraception to a rape survivor, German bishops reversed their stance and ordered Catholic hospitals there to prescribe emergency contraception to rape survivors. However, their position is not shared worldwide. Should a woman who has been raped really have to worry about being compelled to continue a resulting pregnancy, either because a medical facility opposes such contraception on moral grounds or because her insurer refuses to cover it?


IUDs are more effective than the pill. Although emergency contraception is the most controversial form of birth control in this instance, IUDs are also fueling debate. Intrauterine devices are inserted into the uterus as a form of long-term pregnancy prevention.

But according to analysis in the New York Times, “insertion of an IUD soon after a woman has unprotected intercourse is often effective as emergency contraception,” which makes it one of the more controversial forms of contraception among religious conservatives. But studies have found that long-acting forms of birth control such as IUDs are 20 times more effective than the traditional hormonal birth control pill. One analysis found that more than 1 million of the unplanned pregnancies occurring annually are linked to incorrect use of the birth control pill.


IUDs are much more expensive than other forms of birth control. So if IUDs are one of the most effective forms of birth control, why aren’t more women using them? Because obtaining an IUD without insurance coverage costs about $700. Consequently, a device that is potentially among the most effective reproductive resources for poor and working-class women is also potentially the most difficult for them to acquire without the financial aid provided by medical insurance coverage.

Keli Goff is The Root’s special correspondent. Follow her on Twitter.

Keli Goff is The Root’s special correspondent. Follow her on Twitter

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