Women need expanded access to affordable contraceptives

Posted on May 23, 2012

The Bellingham Herald, May 23, 2012 by LINDA MCCARTHY

A recent letter to the editor challenged the notion that women’s health is under attack and I’d like to offer a different opinion.

Across the nation, we are witnessing deep cuts to family planning, attempts to redefine “personhood,” restrictions prohibiting new technology (telemedicine) from providing abortion services to women in rural areas and legislation intended only to shame and demean women who seek to make their own private medical decisions. One state even introduced legislation protecting doctors from medical liability if they purposely withhold information from a woman about either the risk to her health from continuing her pregnancy or of abnormalities to her fetus, if the doctor believes the facts might lead the woman to terminate her pregnancy.

Most recently, the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act has become political simply because lawmakers wanted to strengthen the act by making sure prosecutors have the tools to protect all Americans, including Native Americans, immigrants and people in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered community.

Nationally, more than 1,100 bills have been introduced in the last year aimed at restricting or eliminating access to reproductive health care for women. In the real world, women don’t turn to politicians for information about birth control, mammograms or cancer screenings. So why then have politicians intervened with doctors’ care to mandate providing false information to women seeking abortion, such as abortion causes breast cancer? A woman should have all the accurate information about her options – information that supports her, helps her make a decision for herself and enables her to take care of her health and well-being.

One of the most maligned issues related to women’s health care is the preventive health care benefit under the Affordable Care Act. This benefit requires health plans to cover preventive care, including cancer screenings, immunizations and birth control, with no co-pays.

Just this week Catholic bishops filed suit against the provision of contraception in the Accountable Care Act. Let’s be clear: Houses of worship are exempt and there is a compromise position in place that requires health insurance plans, not religion-affiliated businesses, to provide contraceptive coverage to their employees. But that isn’t enough. The bishops believe that every entity they own or manage – even if that entity employs the public, serves the public and receives public funding – should be exempt. If they are successful, this could mean that PeaceHealth, the largest employer in Whatcom County with more than 2,700 employees, could be forced to comply and drop contraceptive coverage. Suddenly, these attacks on women’s health may well take on a new meaning locally.

As Washington contraceptive equity laws make clear and as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has ruled, failing to provide women with coverage for contraception in health plans that otherwise cover prescription drugs and devices is sex discrimination. The issue here is insurance coverage of birth control, not the provision of birth control. Nothing in this new benefit requires an organization to dispense birth control, or an individual to take it. This is simply a matter of ensuring women have access to affordable preventive care by providing contraception with no co-pays.

Family planning matters to women, men and families. Thirty-four percent of women voters have struggled to afford prescription birth control at some point in their lives, and, as a result, have used birth control inconsistently. That figure rises to 55 percent for women aged 18-34. It should be no surprise then, that 50 percent of all pregnancies in America are unintended. That’s why coverage of family planning – including exams, screenings and contraceptives – is so essential.

Most importantly, Americans agree. They are enormously supportive of this benefit, with more than 71 percent of American voters, including 77 percent of Catholic women, supporting the coverage of birth control with no co-pay. In fact, 98 percent of sexually active Catholics, and 99 percent of sexually active women overall, have used contraception at some time in their lives.

The reason the respected, nonpartisan Institute of Medicine recommended birth control be covered as a women’s preventive service is because it is basic health care, and it improves health outcomes for women and their families. Research shows that improved access to birth control is directly linked to declines in maternal and infant mortality. That should be good news to us all.

Linda McCarthy is executive director of Mount Baker Planned Parenthood, which nationally serves 3 million women with services including cancer screenings, birth control, STD testing, well-women exams, counseling, sex education and abortion.