Lawyers clash over impact of Trump's rules on birth control

Sudhin Thanawala, Associated Press

FILE - In this July 24, 2017, file photo, President Donald Trump speaks about healthcare in the Blue Room of the White House in Washington. California and the Trump administration will square off at a key federal court hearing in Oakland to help a judge decide whether to block new rules allowing more employers to opt out of birth control coverage for women. U.S. District Court Judge Haywood Gilliam is not expected to immediately issue a ruling at the hearing Tuesday, Dec. 12. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon, File)

OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) -- Lawyers for California and the U.S. Department of Justice clashed in court Tuesday over whether new rules from President Donald Trump's administration would dramatically reduce women's access to free birth control.

Deputy Assistant Attorney General Ethan Davis urged a federal judge not to grant the state's request to block the policy change to President Barack Obama's health care law, saying it was not clear any women would lose no-cost contraception coverage.

The law required most companies to cover birth control at no additional cost, though it included exemptions for religious organizations. The new policy allows more categories of employers, including publicly traded companies, to opt out of providing free contraception to women by claiming religious or moral objections.

Washington state, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania also have sued the Trump administration over the rules. The California attorney general's office said U.S. District Judge Haywood Gilliam was the first judge to hold a hearing to determine whether to block the rules while California's lawsuit moves through the courts.

Delaware, Maryland, New York and Virginia joined California in its effort.

At the hearing, Davis said California had not pointed to any woman who would be affected.

"It's the state burden to show you someone," he told Gilliam, who was nominated to the court by Obama in 2014 and did not immediately issue a ruling.

California says the rules could result in millions of women in the state losing free birth control services.

Julie Weng-Gutierrez, a lawyer with the California attorney general's office, said losing free contraception would lead to unintended pregnancies, taxing the state's health care and other social programs.

"When the cost of contraception increases, women are more likely to use less effective methods of contraception or none at all," she said.

She added, "The court does not need to wait for the ax to fall here. There is sufficient harm."

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services issued the new policy in October. It marked another step in the Trump administration's rollback of Obamacare, and supporters say it promotes religious freedom.

Attorneys for the Trump administration said in court documents that the rules are about "protecting a narrow class of sincere religious and moral objectors from being forced to facilitate practices that conflict with their beliefs."

California's lawsuit says the new rules violate the U.S. Constitution by overvaluing religious beliefs and discriminating against women. It says the Trump administration also violated federal law by acting without allowing for public comment or providing a proper legal or factual basis for the change.

The judge pressed the Justice Department attorney on why the administration didn't follow the standard notice and comment period before implementing the policy. Davis said the issues had been aired in previous comments to the Department of Health and Human Services.

"This issue has been thoroughly ventilated," he said.