The election is over, but the work of expanding and improving women’s access to quality health care is just beginning.
Last month, the United Nations declared access to family planning to be a universal human right that all member countries should respect, protect, and fulfill—a decidedly non-controversial concept for most of the developed world, and indeed not a novel concept for the UN or its members. That is, of course, with the exception of the United States, where human rights are mostly regarded as instruments for other countries to adopt and implement while considered quite unnecessary for our own advancement and well-being. So far are we from adopting a human rights framework at home that it’s hard to imagine what would happen if U.S. policymakers approached access to health care — and women’s health in particular — as a right akin to free speech, bearing arms, or practicing our religion. However, given our domestic women’s health crises, we could certainly benefit from adopting some outside perspectives on the right to health care.
Women’s health issues were front and center in the 2012 presidential campaign, garnering far more mainstream attention than in previous elections. From serious discussion in the primary and general election debates to thoroughly considered policy positions to uncensored public remarks, hot-button women’s health issues—rape, abortion, contraception—created a gender gap in the electorate to which many attribute President Obama’s victory. As we look toward the commencement of Obama’s second term, it’s clear that the president has numerous monumental challenges before him. But we must not let the protection of women’s health and rights be compromised by other priorities such as the fiscal cliff, the federal budget, or foreign policy crises.
Obama’s victory was a win for women in the short term because it averted the immediate decimation of women’s health funding and infrastructure promised by Romney and his Republican counterparts across the country. But the country needs a long-term win: one that will improve the lives of American women and girls for generations to come. Such a win will require the president’s unwavering determination to improve women’s access to health services and their health outcomes throughout the course of his second term. And it is the job of women and the people who love them to provide a constant reminder that he must deliver on his promises.
Our government should ensure that all women have access to affordable, quality health care not only because it is morally the right thing to do, but because it is the smart and necessary thing to do to strengthen the entire country. Critical indicators such as maternal mortality, teen pregnancy, and unintended pregnancy illustrate the high cost of treating women’s health care as a privilege instead of a right. The United States trails 49 other nations in a ranking of maternal deaths worldwide and has a teen pregnancy rate higher than almost all other industrialized countries. Moreover, nearly half of all pregnancies in the United States are unintended. The data below illustrate how the health circumstances of women of color and low-income women have truly reached crisis proportions and demand immediate action.
These inequities in women’s health in the United States are shameful, are a violation of human rights, and are, of course, directly related to the quality and availability of family planning and reproductive health care. Obamacare is certainly a historic step in the right direction. It has already extended contraceptive coverage (including highly effective methods such as the IUD, hormonal implants, and injections) to more than a million young women, and by 2016 it will cover nearly 13 million more. It also mandates the inclusion of other critical services: one annual “well woman” visit to a primary care physician, access to emergency contraception (also known as the morning-after pill), HPV testing, screenings for STDs, screenings for gestational diabetes, and coverage for maternal health care, including breast-feeding support.
Despite the immediate improvements to women’s health and the long-term cost savings associated with expanded coverage, Obamacare faces a steep uphill battle. Twenty-seven states have filed suit against the president’s plan, challenging its constitutionality. Additionally, over the last year a number of states have attempted to defund Planned Parenthood and other facilities that provide information about, referrals for, or counseling on abortion (even though none of these providers actually perform abortions), threatening to dismantle an irreplaceable infrastructure that has provided millions of women across the country with critical health services.