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Contraception debate should be about people, not politics

Union Leader

WOMEN’S health care is under attack. Already this year we have seen assaults on Planned Parenthood, on federal funding for women’s health and now on access to contraception.

Now the forces behind these attacks have a dangerous new proposal that would affect health care for all Americans.

The proposal offered by Senate Republicans in Congress would empower corporations or any other employer to deny virtually any preventive or essential health service to any American based on any religious or moral objection. This bill would let your boss make your health care decisions, instead of you and your doctor. Employers could decide they oppose covering cancer screenings, diabetes tests, or maternity care.

Republicans argue that this sweeping proposal is necessary to preserve religious liberty. But this debate is not about faith. And it should not be about politics. This debate should be about access to essential health services.

The political maneuvering has been building for weeks, since the Obama Administration announced that contraception would be included on a list of free preventive health services that health insurance plans would be required to provide to women.

When the Administration first announced this decision, it led to a robust conversation about religious liberty. Although churches were already exempt, some religiously affiliated institutions, such as hospitals or universities, remained concerned.

In an effort to address those concerns, the President modified his decision. The compromise won the support of the Catholic Health Association and other religious groups, but some religious institutions continue to resist providing contraceptive coverage for employees.

In New Hampshire, a number of religiously affiliated institutions are already providing contraception coverage. When I was governor, I was proud to sign a law that required most private insurance plans to cover contraceptives.

There was little opposition and bipartisan support when I signed the bill in 1999.

Despite the bill’s effectiveness for the last 12 years, Republicans in Concord now say they will work to repeal it, thereby limiting access to contraception for thousands of women across our state.

Once again, women’s health is being used as a political football for election-year gain.

Instead of politics, we should be talking about policy. It was the independent, non-profit Institute of Medicine, along with other medical experts, that recommended federal rules include contraception as a required preventive service because it is essential to the health of women and families.

Access to birth control is directly linked to declines in maternal and infant mortality, can reduce the risk of ovarian cancer and is linked to overall good health outcomes. A full 14 percent of women who use contraceptives — 1.5 million women — do not use it as birth control, but solely to treat serious medical conditions, such as endometriosis.

Most important, broadening access to birth control will help reduce the number of unintended pregnancies — and abortions — in this country. In 2006 publicly funded family planning services helped women avoid an estimated 1.94 million unintended pregnancies.

Birth control use is nearly universal in the United States: 99 percent of women who are or have been sexually active use it at some point in their lives, including 98 percent of Catholic women.

Several recent polls have affirmed that a strong majority of American voters support this provision.

Improving access to contraception is good health policy. Congress should reject attempts to unravel advances in women’s health and instead work to preserve individual liberty. Families deserve the right to make their own decisions when it comes to their own health care.

Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat, represents New Hampshire in the United States Senate.