OPINION | Defend women's health

The “contraception controversy” has exploded this month, as the government decides whether or not religiously affiliated organizations should have to cover contraception to their female employees without co-pays. It’s a complex debate and an important question, but the struggle for women’s reproductive health and reproductive rights goes far beyond this one ruling. Family planning services, contraception, and abortion rights are threatened, and if women’s rights are not protected, we’ll see huge public health and economic impacts.

Family planning services, which include not only access to contraception but also pregnancy testing, screenings for breast and cervical cancer, gynecological exams, and treatment for STIs, are being cut across the country. Montana, New Jersey, New Hampshire, and Texas have all made recent, significant cuts to these services. Some states are targeting specific institutions that provide these services; Wisconsin, North Carolina, Tennessee, Indiana, and Texas have all moved to block Planned Parenthood from funding because it also provides abortions, even though state dollars don’t go towards abortions. More states are moving forward on similar measures.

Take the example of Texas. The state cut family planning by two thirds in October. Shortly after, half of state-supported family planning clinics had closed. Now conservatives want to cut the Women’s Health Program, which covers over 100,000 low-income Texas women. They would rather sacrifice the health of these women than fund Planned Parenthood.

At the same time, reproductive-age women are more and more likely to be uninsured. Research from the University of Minnesota found that a quarter of women between the ages of 18 and 49 had gaps in insurance, and 10 percent of pregnant women were uninsured. In 2009, the Guttmacher Institute found that 23 percent of mid- to low-income women had difficulty paying for birth control, and 24 percent put off a visit to the gynecologist. A lot of women aren’t receiving the help they need to afford contraception and prenatal care—and their children could face poor birth outcomes. And yet across the nation, conservatives are making it more difficult for these women to access care.

That’s not all. There’s lots of evidence showing that contraception saves women and taxpayers money. Contraception allows women to delay childbearing, so they can invest in their education and careers. Historically, this not only helped individual women but also resulted in a huge economic impact as more women joined the workforce. One study showed that the pill alone accounted for 30 percent of the convergence of men’s and women’s salaries between 1990 and 2000. And according to the Atlantic, the rise of women in the workplace contributed almost 2 percent per year to GDP growth. Contraceptives are saving money today, too. A study from the Brookings Center on Children and Families found that expanding family planning through Medicaid—a $235 million investment possible through the Affordable Care Act—would save taxpayers a whopping $1.32 billion. Why are we fighting family planning?

The right to choose is also facing great challenges. Last month’s controversy in Virginia over requiring women who seek abortions to undergo a transvaginal ultrasound was only the beginning: similar noninvasive bills are pending in several states and Texas has been enforcing transvaginal ultrasounds since last year. Florida wants to instate a 24-hour waiting period after ultrasound, Utah is pushing a 72-hour waiting period, Oklahoma wants to require women to listen to the sounds of the fetus’ heartbeat, and South Dakota wants to mandate counseling at crisis-pregnancy centers.

Two proposed bills in Minnesota would require new, expensive licensing and inspections for all clinics that provide 10 or more abortions per month, and would require a doctor’s presence for the administration of abortion-inducing drugs. This effectively shuts down a program started by Planned Parenthood to give patients in rural areas easier access to medication abortions, which use a pill to induce early abortion. The program allows a trained health care professional to administer the drug if a doctor is present via videoconferencing. The drugs in question are associated with fewer deaths than Tylenol or Viagra, and yet these proposed bills make it ever harder for patients to access them. “Make no mistake, this bill is not about protecting women or saving lives,” said Karen Law, executive director of Pro-Choice Resources in Minneapolis, “This is a whittling away at abortion access for women.”

Even as they try to strip services and rights, conservatives attack woman. We’ve had Rush Limbaugh on one side label Sandra Fluke a “slut,” Bob Morris of Indiana call the Girl Scouts of America “a tactical arm of Planned Parenthood,” and Foster Freiss tell us “gals” to put aspirin between our knees. Don’t even get me started on Rick Santorum.

Something needs to change, and we can make it happen here. Minnesota does not need to follow in the footsteps of the states mentioned here. We can take Minnesota in a different direction. Instead of cutting family planning services, let’s bolster funding and pass contraceptive equity. Instead of threatening a woman’s right to choose, let’s support organizations like Planned Parenthood and secure the right of a woman to seek an abortion if she chooses. We need to stand by our commitment to women’s health and reproductive rights.

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    Meg Reid's picture
    Meg Reid