Opportunities for women’s health in lame-duck session

In the wake of the midterm elections, one thing is abundantly clear — despite the losses Democrats faced, women’s healthcare received sweeping, bipartisan support.

For the first time in recent memory, we saw conservative candidates distance themselves from their previous records and move toward positions that expanded access to women’s healthcare — including access to affordable birth control and safe, legal abortion — in an effort to appeal to female voters and our allies.

{mosads}Because of this moderation, 1/3 of voters who support access to abortion voted for Republicans this year, and voters rejected so-called “personhood” measures in North Dakota and Colorado by wide margins. Now these voters expect their elected officials to govern as moderates, and keep the government out of women’s personal health care decisions.

The current Congress can start right now heeding the message of voters in this election by standing up for women’s health in the lame duck session. There are numerous provisions that will be addressed in the spending bills and other legislation taken up during lame duck that matter for women’s health and rights — and Congress should protect each of these programs and policies.  However, amidst all of it there are four key opportunities to make commonsense progress for women in a bipartisan manner consistent with the message of voters in this election: fund family planning and cancer screenings for low-income women, fund comprehensive sex education programs, provide no-copay birth control to all military personnel, and provide equitable abortion coverage for Peace Corps volunteers so that they can access abortion in cases of rape, incest, and to save the life of the woman, the same coverage as other federal employees and servicewomen.

By moving to support these four proactive measures Congress can send a clear message to women that their voices were heard in the 2014 elections, and that the time for using women’s health as a wedge issue is over.

Twenty million women are in need of publicly funded family planning care. The Title X Family Planning Program, which was enacted by a Republican administration and has enjoyed bipartisan support for decades, is one of our nation’s most effective programs, drastically reducing unintended pregnancies and providing millions of at-risk women with lifesaving screenings for breast and cervical cancers. In the lame duck session, we urge Congress to include a minimum of $300 million in funding for this critical program in any omnibus appropriations legislation. This is a smart fiscal investment: for every $1 the U.S. spends on family planning, it saves $7 in other areas.

A second priority in the lame duck session should be a commitment from Congress to act to stem America’s teen pregnancy epidemic. The U.S. has one of the highest teen pregnancy rates among the world’s developed nations and nearly 615,000 teenagers will become pregnant this year. While the teen pregnancy rate has been steadily declining for the past 20 years, African-American and Hispanic teens are more than twice as likely to experience pregnancy as white teens.

In the remaining legislative period, Congress should dedicate a minimum of $101 million to the Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program run through the Office of Adolescent Health. Investments in teen pregnancy prevention programs have been an enormous success and that trend must continue. They are proven to be the most effective way to help youth delay the initiation of sex and increase the use of condoms and birth control when they do have sex. Programs that emphasize abstinence-only have been determined by the nonpartisan Institute of Medicine as “poor fiscal and public health policy” that should be eradicated.
Thirdly, Congress should stand behind our service members by including language in the defense authorization bill to provide contraception coverage for all military personnel and their dependents. Studies have shown that the rate of unplanned pregnancy in the military is estimated to be up to 50 percent higher than the unplanned pregnancy rate among civilian women. While more than 70 percent of voters believe birth control should be covered by insurance without a copay, non-active women in the military and dependents are still denied access to no-copay contraception. The women who receive their care through the U.S. military deserve the same access to no-copay birth control that all other American women now appreciate through their health insurance.

Finally, female Peace Corps volunteers, who risk their safety to serve others thousands of miles from home, deserve the same protections we provide most women employed through the federal government. Hundreds of female Peace Corps volunteers were raped or sexually assaulted between 2000 and 2009, yet because of language imposed by Congress in the 1980s, the Peace Corps is currently one of the only sectors of the U.S. government that denies coverage for abortion in any case. A commonsense and bipartisan provision to provide equitable abortion coverage to Peace Corps volunteers in cases of rape, incest, and to save the life of the woman — passed in House and Senate Committees earlier this year — must be maintained in a final FY15 omnibus bill.

Voters across party lines support vital family planning care, medically accurate comprehensive sex education, affordable birth control, and access to safe and legal abortion. Moderates were elected, and the public expects moderates to govern on these issues and others in 2015. The lame duck session is the perfect opportunity to show Americans that it’s possible.

Singiser is vice president of Public Policy and Government Affairs for the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

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