Throughout the United States, attacks on women’s reproductive health services, including contraception, are at unprecedented levels. In 2011 alone, lawmakers enacted 92 provisions in bills designed to curtail women’s access to basic health services, more than double the previous record set in 2005. Yet much of the public is unaware of the effect these restrictions will have on women’s health.
Arizona recently passed the most extreme abortion law in nation, limiting abortion to 20 weeks from the day of a woman’s last menstrual cycle – in other words, pre-conception – and requiring any doctor – and it must be a doctor, not a nurse – who prescribes medication abortion (or the so-called “abortion pill”) to have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles. This, of course, eliminates access for most rural women.
In May, lawmakers in Kansas were poised to pass a bill that would use the tax code to penalize all health centers, hospitals, and providers referring to or providing abortions, but it got derailed for at least a year, when legislators realized they’d lose accreditation of their major academic medical center as a result.
South Dakota and other states now mandate in-person counseling before an abortion can be performed. No procedure performed on men requires mandated counseling, although some female legislators recently introduced bills that would require such counseling before erectile dysfunction drugs like Viagra could be prescribed.
Meanwhile, Texas has withdrawn all state funding of Planned Parenthood clinics, compromising and even eliminating access to services such as mammograms and testing for sexually transmitted infections, that the organization provides to millions of low-income women.
And despite many cries in Congress to leave abortion under state rather than federal control, Congress recently voted to remove the right of the District of Columbia to fund Medicaid abortions.
But, in my opinion, the most serious threat to women’s reproductive health gains lies with proposals to rescind the Affordable Care Act (ACA), which now benefits millions of women who are privately insured by making them eligible for many services without any co-pays. These include: screening for gestational diabetes, testing for human papillomavirus (HPV) as part of cervical cancer screening for women over 30, counseling on sexually transmitted infections, contraceptive counseling to prevent unintended pregnancies, and screening to detect and prevent domestic violence. The Department of Health and Human Services estimates that if the ACA is repealed, 47 million women would be affected – about half of the 97 million women who need these services.
For many of us who have been working in women’s health for decades, it is both surreal and discouraging to bear witness to these recent setbacks. What can we do, especially in this critical election year, to reverse these trends and to preserve the gains established in the ACA? We can start by making people, especially young people, aware of the increasing threats to women’s health and family planning.
Over the past year, in the lead up to this November’s election, I have spoken with hundreds of young people on college campuses about everything from attacks on contraceptives, to the growing popularity of silicone gel breast implants and egg extraction procedures.
What surprises me is the relatively small number of students who are reasonably well-informed about both the science and the politics of various women’s health issues. Notwithstanding the number of excellent gender studies courses, women’s rights organizations, and lively blogs dealing with these issues, general awareness is underwhelming.
Also discouraging is the lack of interest I’ve noticed in this year’s presidential election. Among one group of recent high school graduates, none had plans to register to vote. They were “bored” by politics and did not see voting as relevant to their lives. They are also unaware of the most recent attacks on contraception, even though most of them use contraceptives.
Those of us who believe that voting is our civic duty and essential to preserving a democracy – even one as flawed as our own – must now persuade young people to become more politically involved. To reach them, we need to appeal to self-interest as well as to make broader appeals for justice and fairness.
At Our Bodies Ourselves, we recently launched an educational campaign – “Our Bodies, Our Votes” – that we hope will underscore for young women in particular why this upcoming election should matter to them.
I’m hopeful that this short, clear message will help awaken unregistered (and registered) voters to the fact that casting a ballot really does matter. It’s time to harness the power of self-interest to show that “the personal is political” is more than a time-honored feminist principle. It’s the truth.