One Small Step for Women

On Monday - in the middle of the debt ceiling fracas - a news story broke that would have been a big deal on any other day. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced new mandates for women’s preventative health services. The new guidelines stipulate that insurance companies can no longer charge co-pays for birth control and voluntary sterilization. Among the other benefits addressed in the new guidelines are post-natal care, STD screenings, and annual check-ups. These things aren’t FREE. It just means insurance companies have to cover them and can’t charge co-pays.

Once the new “guidelines” or “mandates” - depending on your perspective - were announced, there were predictable reactions. Women’s health groups celebrated, conservative religious organizations condemned, and the man representing my hometown in Congress - Steve King - said it could make us “...a dying civilization.” Apparently he thinks that healthy civilizations should be built on unplanned pregnancies.

I understand why social and economic conservatives might have misgivings about these new rules. Being neither of those things I support the guidelines, but I think there are reasons detractors might want to reconsider.

1) Economics: If we don’t pay for things on the “front end” we pay them on the “back end.” Unintended pregnancies cost us. And, before you go saying, “well I don’t think we should be supporting these deadbeats through Medicaid and welfare anyway,” hear me out. It’s not just the cost of putting many of these unplanned children on Medicaid and welfare. It’s the cost to the women, many of whom may be prevented from advancing in education or careers because they had a child when they were too young or not ready. It affects the fathers if they choose to stick around (and they SHOULD choose to stick around, right?). They too might be prevented from completing education or forced to make financial sacrifices before they are truly ready. Those two parents won’t be as economically productive as they might have been.

Photo courtesy of Walt Stoneburner

There was a time in my mid-twenties when my income from working at a non-profit was marginal and my health insurance didn’t cover birth control AT ALL. My now-husband helped me pay for it because, after all, it was half his responsibility. I’m under no illusion that every woman has a partner who splits the cost of contraceptives. Also, when you’re living paycheck to paycheck an extra $30-60 a month is no joke. A $15 co-pay is not chump change when you calculate in very small numbers. Not to mention that having a baby at 26 - while hardly the same as having a baby at 16 - might have prevented me from going to graduate school and my husband from growing into the tech career he has now. In short, we wouldn’t have been as economically productive if we had a child before we were ready. Some people are ready at that age - we just weren’t.

Finally, there are the links between unplanned pregnancies and crime rates. It sounds a little harsh, but fewer unplanned pregnancies mean fewer criminals 20 years later. In their book, Freaknomics, Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner link the drop in crime in the 1990’s to Roe V. Wade some 20 years before. It’s not a nice thought, but fewer unplanned pregnancies mean fewer people who are a burden on society. For those of you who still think we shouldn’t support those children on Medicaid and welfare once they are born, perhaps you need to brush up on your history. Victorian street urchins are cute in the movies, but the reality isn’t as charming.

Photo courtesy of Glen's Pics

2) Religion: Last time I checked we still had the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. You know, that thing that gives us separation of church and state. So, really the religious arguments should be moot. I admire people, such as my colleague Bobbi Jo Rohrberg, who remain abstinent while single. While that’s an ideal - especially for teens - it’s not realistic. A 2009 study by Janet Rosenbaum, Ph.D., at Johns Hopkins University, essentially debunked the efficacy of abstinence-only as a sex education program. Not to mention that by preventing unplanned pregnancies you know what else gets prevented? Abortions.

3) Societal Responsibility: Birth control is the responsibility of men too. I’m a little offended that this is a “Women’s issue.” Aren’t both men and women involved in the process of creating a child? Some random man on the Facebook page of another blog was trying to argue that he shouldn’t pay for “women’s healthcare” unless some pill for men was also covered. Well, during the aforementioned time I didn’t have birth control coverage it turned out Viagra was covered on that insurance policy. The women at work complained and the next year we had coverage for birth control (with a co-pay, but coverage). Increased access to birth control also protects and benefits men who aren’t ready to be fathers. Even for those who are celibate or past child bearing age, I would argue that these guidelines might help your child, grandchild or niece. I would also refer you to my previous economic arguments.

Health care is unique among issues, save for education, because it’s key to our nation’s vitality. A little preventative care for young women will pay off in the long run - for all of us.