In the final days of its 2013–14 term, the Supreme Court handed down three rulings of major consequence for women. In Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, a 5-4 majority held that requiring some for-profit employers to pay for insurance that covers contraception was a violation of religious freedom. In McCullen v. Coakley, the Court unanimously found that a Massachusetts law creating a thirty-five-foot “buffer zone” around abortion clinics violated protesters’ free speech guarantees. In Harris v. Quinn, the Court ruled 5 to 4 that it was unconstitutional to require homecare workers to pay fees to the unions representing them.
While the McCullen and Harris decisions were adjudicated primarily on First Amendment grounds, and while the Hobby Lobby and McCullen cases, in particular, have often been framed as “culture war” issues, all three rulings have profoundly important implications for women’s economic rights. What does it mean when an employer is able to paternalistically restrict how a worker chooses to use her own health benefits? How does restricted access to abortion and contraception affect women economically? How does the setback the Court dealt to homecare workers—a workforce composed overwhelmingly of women of color—affect their decades-long fight better pay and working conditions, and the feminist project to revalue care work? We explore these issues and more in this week’s roundtable. —Kathleen Geier
Sarah Jaffe: When SCOTUS handed down its decisions, a handful of journalists discussed Hobby Lobby and Harris together—they came out on the last day of the Court’s session, they were written by the same justice (George W. Bush appointee Samuel Alito, certainly no friend of women, workers or women as workers), both split 5-4, and both clearly issues of rights in the workplace. McCullen was discussed separately: the abortion clinic buffer zone ruling came out on a different day, was unanimous, and was written by a different justice (Chief Justice Roberts). But McCullen too is a decision that will affect women (and men) in the workplace.
How many other people go to work each day being accosted, called murderers, and violently threatened as they attempt to cross the parking lot?
An abortion clinic is a fraught location, a front in the so-called culture wars, and an institution with which even some pro-choice people have an ambivalent relationship. Decades of legal and legislative attempts to chip away at Roe v. Wade have isolated abortion clinics and the doctors, nurses and other workers there from other, less controversial medical establishments. Decades of anti-abortion rhetoric that calls doctors murderers has painted targets on the backs of physicians who perform abortions. We understand the need for a buffer zone in order to help the patients reach the clinic in safety, but we should also understand it as a way to keep the workers safe on the job. How many other people go to work each day being accosted, called murderers and violently threatened as they attempt to cross the parking lot?
The attempts by lawmakers to make abortion more difficult, more arduous, more expensive to access have a disproportionate effect on lower-income people. Waiting period? Try taking several days off of work, and in a post–Hobby Lobby world, do you really want to explain to your boss why you need that time? For the 40 million workers in this country who have no access to paid sick time, it means losing several days’ pay for an expensive procedure not covered by insurance if you’re lucky, and added travel costs if you aren’t. Add to that the prospect of having to run a gauntlet of people trying to shame you, harangue you, and yes, possibly out you.