Union Pacific Railroad defended its policy of not covering contraceptives in its health care plan in federal appeals court here in a lawsuit that could have far-reaching impact on other businesses.

A federal judge in Omaha, Neb. ruled in June that Union Pacific discriminated against women by denying them coverage of contraceptives. The lawsuit, backed by Planned Parenthood, alleges the policy violates the federal Civil Rights Act.

U.S. Judge Pasco Bowman speculated during the hearing at the U.S. 8th Circuit Court of Appeals that a ruling against Union Pacific might mandate all companies to provide coverage for contraceptives.

"You're talking about a huge decision that would affect a lot of companies besides Union Pacific," Bowman said.

The lead plaintiffs in the class-action were two Union Pacific employees: Brandi Standridge, a 25-year-old trainman and engineer from Pocatello, Idaho, and Kenya Phillips, a 32-year-old engineer who lives near Kansas City, Mo.

Their attorney Roberta Riley told the panel of three judges Thursday that the women were discriminated against when denied coverage for contraceptives.

Riley argued that all men at Union Pacific got coverage for drugs that protected them against health risks. Only women were denied coverage of drugs that would help them avoid pregnancy.

Union Pacific attorney Donald Munro argued that the policy didn't discriminate against women at all. He said all employees were denied contraception coverage, both men and women.

Munro said the health care plan did provide contraceptive coverage for women who faced higher health risks from pregnancy, such as those with high blood pressure or other conditions.

Riley responded that access to contraceptives was crucial for the health of all women. She said without contraception the average woman would become pregnant between 12 and 15 times in her lifetime.

Munro argued that coverage is denied only to employees who wanted to buy contraception for "family planning" purposes, which was not a health necessity.

Judge Bowman seemed skeptical that pregnancy was a health risk to be avoided in and of itself.

"It's a traumatic thing, we all know that," he told Riley during her argument. But Bowman noted that most women deliver children and soon recover to a healthy state.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control "said contraception is one of the top 10 public health accomplishments of the 20th century because it saves women's lives," Riley responded.

The three-judge panel will consider the case before ruling on the appeal. Other judges on the panel were Kermit Bye and Raymond Gruender.

Omaha-based Union Pacific Corp. operates Union Pacific Railroad. It is the largest railroad in North America, covering 23 states.