On Tuesday, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments from two for-profit companies, Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialities, which are fighting for the right to withhold insurance coverage for contraception, saying that it conflicts with their religious beliefs. They argue they should be exempt from the Affordable Care Act’s requirement that birth control be covered by health insurance — although depending on how the justices rule, companies could be allowed to deny any type of health service based on a religious objection.
But access to contraception has drastically improved the economy and helped businesses themselves. Without it, millions fewer women would be in our workforce.
In an influential study, Claudia Goldin and Lawrence F. Katz showed that access to the pill encouraged women to invest in education and training without the fear of having to interrupt them due to unwanted pregnancy. That allowed them to pursue careers. “Because up-front, time-intensive career investments are difficult for women with child care responsibilities, the pill encouraged women’s careers by virtually eliminating the risk of pregnancy,” they write. It also changed the marriage market by decoupling sex and marriage and therefore lowing the cost of delaying marriage, which made career women more attractive mates.
The numbers are striking. Access to the pill accounted for more than 30 percent in the increase of women holding jobs in skilled professions between 1970 and 1990. It also significantly increased how much time women were able to spend working: the pill accounted for at least 15 percent of the increase in hours worked for women between 16 and 30 in the same time frame, and women who were directly affected by the increase in access after the 1965 Griswold v Connecticut case worked about two to three weeks more per year compared to those who couldn’t get it.
These changes swelled the workforce: In 1950, just 18 million were working, but by the 1980s, after using contraception had become normalized, 60 percent of women of reproductive age were employed. This coincided with a falling birthrate, which dropped from 118 births per 1,000 women in the 1950s to 68 per 1,000 in the 1980s, a fall of almost 75 percent.
That has had a big effect on businesses, which now have a pool of workers with triple the number of women in it from which they can hire. And the economy has benefitted enormously — it would be 25 percent smaller if women hadn’t entered in the workforce in such great numbers.
But contraception costs money, particularly without insurance coverage. A third of women say they have struggled to afford birth control at some point, which rises to 55 percent for younger women. Little wonder when it can cost more than $1,000 a year. Under the Affordable Care Act, however, insurance will have to cover it without requiring a co-pay. But if Hobby Lobby gets its way, the women among its 14,000-person workforce may struggle to afford it. That could have serious ramifications for their ability to show up to work.
Covering contraception benefits businesses in another key way: it’s cheaper. Covering prescription contraception in employee health benefits can save money given the high costs of pregnancy and childbirth. The National Business Group on Health estimates failing to cover it can cost an employer 15 to 17 percent more.