Hail a state of feminine salvation

Sometimes it feels good to be a New Yorker. The last time we wrote that here was in 2011 after the state legalized same-sex marriage.

We’re feeling that way this month after two initiatives by our attorney general, Eric T. Schneiderman, who grandly waves a banner for equal justice under the law.

Last week, he proposed a bill on the 166th anniversary of the first women’s rights convention. That was when Elizabeth Cady Stanton asked every woman who had bravely gathered in Seneca Falls, New York to “understand the height, the depth, the length, and the breadth of her own degradation.” That was when Lucretia Mott read from the newly drafted Declaration of Sentiments, “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal....”

We’ve progressed as a society in the last 166 years, but not far enough.

Schneiderman last week proposed a bill to blunt the effects in our state of what has come to be called the Hobby Lobby decision. The Supreme Court of the United States, in a split decision, handed down on June 30, for the first time recognized a for-profit corporation’s claim of religious belief.

Hobby Lobby (a chain of craft stores owned by David Green’s Evangelical Christian family and employing over 20,000 workers) and Conestoga Wood Specialties (owned by the Mennonite Hahn family with about 1,000 workers) were found to be exempt from the Affordable Care Act. The Greens and Hahns objected to providing their female employees with health insurance coverage for four contraceptives approved by the United States Food and Drug Administration, which the business-owning families believe may prevent implantation of a fertilized egg, which they consider an abortion.

Although many scientists may disagree with this definition, Associate Justice Samuel Alito, writing for the majority, struck down the mandate, as applied to closely held corporations with religious objections. He cited the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 because the mandate was not the “least restrictive” method of implementing the government’s interest.

Schneiderman’s proposal, announced last week with Andrea Stewart-Cousins, the State Senate Democratic Conference leader, is called the Reproductive Rights Disclosure Act and is meant to help the New York women who may lose insurance coverage for prescription contraception because of the Supreme Court decision.

Schneiderman notes that, since the decision was reached under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, rather than under the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause, it is limited to actions taken by federal agencies and does not interfere with state laws; New York’s Women’s Health and Wellness Act still provides strong protections for contraceptive coverage but the state law does not reach all women in New York. That’s where the proposed Disclosure Act comes in.

The Disclosure Act, if passed, would require two things of New York employers — to give current employees 90 days of notice before changing contraceptive coverage and to notify prospective employees of any contraceptive coverage they offer their workers.

It’s a Band-Aid on a gaping wound, but would at least give affected women some notice and options.

“No woman should have her personal health-care decision dictated by the religious belief of her boss,” Schneiderman said in a statement.

We agree, but what recourse do we have?

One-hundred-and-sixty-six years ago, those attending the Seneca Falls convention embraced the self-evident truth that all men and women are created equal. We are equal but not the same. Biologically, women are capable of bearing children.

The recent Supreme Court ruling — beyond its flawed science, and beyond its flawed philosophy of granting corporations the status of people — burdens women unequally by not meeting their unique health-care needs.

New York State led in another way, by being the first state in the union — in 1994 — to pass a Civil Rights Law protecting a mother’s right to breastfeed in public. Those of us who nursed our children before then well remember the humiliation of being shunted to dirty bathrooms or worse so that we could fulfill our biological imperative: Breasts were meant to nourish children.

Much scientific research has confirmed the benefits of breastfeeding — antibodies in breast milk protect babies from viruses and bacteria; breastfed babies, quite simply, are healthier. Even so, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, although about three-quarters of mothers start breastfeeding right after giving birth, only about half are breastfeeding six months later, and only 16 percent exclusively.

The percentages have increased in recent years, but old habits die hard. Some women still feel self-conscious about nursing and often society at large is less than encouraging.

Laws can help. Earlier this month, Schneiderman announced an agreement with Barnes & Noble Inc. to protect the rights of nursing mothers in its stores. The Attorney General’s Civil Rights Bureau had investigated after a March 16 incident in which a mother nursing her baby boy in the Nanuet Barnes & Noble was asked to cover up or leave the store.

“All New York residents, including breastfeeding mothers, must be afforded equal protection under the law,” Schneiderman said in a statement.

It’s good to have an attorney general that will make such statements but, two decades after the groundbreaking law was passed, we still need to assert our basic human rights as women.

Let’s join together, men and women, and repeat the words drafted by the women in Seneca Falls 166 years ago: “Because women do feel themselves aggrieved, oppressed, and fraudulently deprived of their most sacred rights, we insist that they have immediate admission to all the rights and privileges which belong to them as citizens of these United States.”
Melissa Hale-Spencer

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