The Supreme Court Could Make It Harder To Access Birth Control and Get Abortions

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The Supreme Court is expected to decide two cases in June that could broadly impact women’s access to birth control and clinics that offer abortions.

While the justices are expected to rule on everything from union representation to political campaigning this month, there are two court cases involving women’s health.


Here’s a brief look at the cases and how the justices’ decision could alter how some women obtain contraception and end pregnancies.

1. Hobby Lobby v. Sebelius

The case centers around the question of whether a privately held, for-profit company can decline to cover employees’ birth control for religious reasons.


Part of the Affordable Care Act requires that birth control be covered, but companies like Hobby Lobby say they should be exempt because the requirement goes against their religious beliefs because it essentially forces them to pay for their employees’ abortions.

Organizations like Planned Parenthood worry that if the court sides with Hobby Lobby, companies could decline to cover vaccines, blood transfusions and mental health care. But conservative groups like the Family Research Council worry that a ruling in favor of the Obama administration could restrict the freedom of businesses to operate how they choose and send the signal that insurance is a right and not just “a product.”

The Supreme Court’s decision could impact far more than just Hobby Lobby and the company’s employees, though.


The court, which rarely issues black-and-white decisions, could rule on whether a business can even have religious beliefs, for instance. They could restrict the ruling to certain companies, like S corporations that pass their earnings to their shareholders.

Back in March when the court heard the case, at least three of the justices seemed open to the possibility of limiting the birth control mandate, while the three female justices appeared more sympathetic to the government’s concerns. But there are several potential swing votes and we won’t know the outcome until the court announces its decision.


2. McCullen v. Coakley

The second case to watch looks at the constitutionality of buffer zones around abortion clinics.


Right now, some states, including Massachusetts, have laws that prevent protesters from getting within 35 feet of abortion clinic entrances and exits, with exceptions for clinic employees. A Massachusetts abortion opponent, Eleanor McCullen, says the exception in her state restricts free speech because it basically allows clinic employees to enter buffer zones and speak their views to people seeking abortions, while opponents cannot.

But the state says free speech isn’t the issue, conduct is. Massachusetts argues that the law is needed to maintain safe access to the clinic, which the state says was compromised by rowdy protesters before the law was enacted. The state also argues that the law simply permits employees to do their jobs, but does not leave room for the type of dialogue McCullen is concerned about.


Like the Hobby Lobby case, the McCullen case has lots of nuances and the court’s decision is unlikely to be simple and straightforward.

Nearly a decade and a half ago, the Supreme Court upheld a Colorado law that creates “floating” buffer zones around individual people entering clinics to protect them from protesters. This new case could impact that ruling. The court, which is more conservative now than it was in 2000, could say that buffer zones are completely unconstitutional and overturn that earlier ruling.


Justice Antonin Scalia, who remains one of the court’s most conservative voices, argued at the time that the state was essentially trying to protect a person’s right to be left alone on a public street.

He and the other conservative justices could decide buffer zones are unconstitutional. The ruling could be broad or it could apply just to Massachusetts. The court could say, for instance, that the Massachusetts law, with it’s 35-foot buffer zones, is too restrictive, but leave intact the Colorado ruling.


The outcome won’t be clear until later this month, when the court’s decision is expected, but given the conservative leanings of the justices and their history of allowing what they call free speech, the 35-foot-buffer may be a thing of the past.

Emily DeRuy is a Washington, D.C.-based associate editor, covering education, reproductive rights, and inequality. A San Francisco native, she enjoys Giants baseball and misses Philz terribly.