America’s checkered record on supporting women’s rights to birth control was further stained last week when five Supreme Court justices – none of them women – ruled that a corporation’s “religious beliefs” can override this most basic of human rights. The decision undermines not only women’s rights, but all of our rights to a more sustainable future.
Despite decades of progress in improving access to modern contraception in the U.S., the Hobby Lobby decision shows that many American women still face major barriers to accessing their chosen forms of family planning. In fact, the decision strikes a double blow, throwing up new cultural and economic barriers. For while the Affordable Care Act promised to ease cost barriers by requiring coverage of birth control under all insurance plans, thousands of women whose employers find contraception objectionable due to “sincerely held religious beliefs” may now see that coverage denied.
Yet despite these latest stumbles, and the host of other issues that boost the rates of unintended pregnancies in the U.S., women in America remain luckier than many. Around the globe, an estimated 222 million women in the developing world want to delay or avoid a pregnancy, yet aren’t using modern contraception. And the list of barriers these women face is far longer and more daunting than those facing Americans.
Clinics may run out of contraceptives. Misinformation or fears of side effects may cause women not to use contraception even when it is available. In areas where women do not have equal rights with men, husbands may forbid their wives to use birth control or even visit a clinic. The nearest reproductive health clinic may be miles away, and staffed by too few trained nurses and doctors to meet the need.
Unfortunately, the Hobby Lobby ruling could make things worse for women outside the U.S. as well. Despite the fact that repeated polling shows strong U.S. support for international family planning assistance, the dollar amount of that assistance has stagnated. Meanwhile, opponents in Congress and past administrations have made numerous attempts to bar support for clinics that offer women counseling on abortion, which could prevent U.S. support for women’s health clinics in any country that permits abortion.
It’s not just women who pay the price for these restrictions. For every $1 invested in family planning, the world reaps $4 in benefits, ranging from healthier women and children to increased food security, reduced pressure on natural resources and opportunities for economic growth. That makes family planning funding one of the least expensive – and least complicated – opportunities for progress against a whole host of sustainability goals.
That matters now more than ever: In September, the nations of the world will start formal negotiations for a new set of sustainable development goals. The draft targets include “ensure universal access to sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights,” along with a variety of other equally important goals whose hopes for success rest at least in part on our achieving those reproductive rights.
That’s right. If we want to successfully tackle poverty, hunger, health, pollution, consumption, and even climate change, we’d do best to start by empowering women with the power to choose the timing and spacing of their children. That’s the central message of a new website we’re launching this week, WomenAtTheCenter.org, designed to illuminate the links between access to family planning and a more sustainable world.
Of course, we’re certainly not alone in recognizing these connections. During her speech at the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) in June 2012, then- Secretary of State Hillary Clinton noted that “to reach our goals in sustainable development we also have to ensure women’s reproductive rights. Women must be empowered to make decisions about whether and when to have children.”
Perhaps that’s why Clinton spoke so vehemently last week about the Hobby Lobby decision, calling it “deeply disturbing” and a setback for women’s rights. I call the ruling a setback for human rights, period. And I hope it sparks a new conversation, in America and in our negotiations around the next set of sustainable development goals, about what “rights” really mean – and who has the right to decide.