Women’s Health Update: What You Need To Know Before You Vote

This campaign season has seen a flurry of women’s health issues come to the forefront of political debates, and sometimes it can feel overwhelming to keep track of which women’s health issues are being discussed, where proceedings stand, and what the major implications of decisions are. Here’s a quick guide to what matters most when it comes to bureaucrats governing your lady parts.

Michigan passes abortion “superbill” in the House. In early June, the Michigan State House of Representatives passed a bill (HB 5711, 5712, and 5713) which puts severe restrictions on abortion clinics and services. One of the most notable provisions of the bill mandates abortion clinics performing six or more abortions per month to become licensed surgical centers, even if they only perform non-surgical abortions. The bill awaits a Senate vote (likely in September) and discussion on further provisions, such as criminalizing abortions, even in the case of rape or incest, after 20 weeks. Notably, two female Michigan legislators were banned from speaking on the House floor after Rep. Lisa Brown used the term “vagina” while discussing the bill.

Virginia bill requiring ultrasound prior to abortion went into effect July 1. Women in Virginia seeking abortion services must now undergo an ultrasound before the abortion can be performed, regardless of whether a physician deems it medically necessary. The original version of the bill received major press by requiring an invasive transvaginal ultrasound, but Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell called for revision to the transvaginal requirement after legal advisors counseled him that such a requirement could violate the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable search and seizure.

Arizona’s strict abortion bill temporarily halted by a federal appeals court. In April 2012, Arizona passed an abortion bill which prohibits abortion beginning at 20 weeks of pregnancy except in the case of medical emergencies (with no exception for rape or incest). The bill’s implementation, which was initially set for early August, was temporarily halted by a federal appeals court on August 1 until appeals on the bill can be heard this fall.

Abortion bill for Washington, DC fails in the House on July 31. A bill that would ban all abortions past the 20-week mark, including in the case of rape, incest, or danger to the mother’s life, failed to pass the House of Representatives by 28 votes. While many political commentators felt that the bill was raised as a campaign-year effort for Republics to establish conservative credentials, the absence of exceptions for cases of violence or life-threatening emergencies drew significant criticism from many women’s health advocates.

Arizona Governor Jan Brewer signs bill to cut off Planned Parenthood funding. Planned Parenthood is the US affiliate of a larger international organization which seeks to provide affordable health care access for women. Controversy has surrounded private, federal, and state funding to the organization primary due the Planned Parenthood’s provision of abortion services, which comprise approximately 3% of the services it provides. In early May, Arizona’s governor signed a bill (HB2800) to cut off public funding for Planned Parenthood. Although the use of public funds for abortion was already banned, this law goes a step further by defunding the other, non-abortion services that Planned Parenthood provides, such as health screenings and contraceptive services.  The bill was particularly contentious because only five of 15 Planned Parenthood clinics in Arizona offer abortion services. Planned Parenthood Arizona filed suit in July, and the case is pending.

Texas awaits court ruling on constitutionality of budget cutting Planned Parenthood funding. In February 2012, the Texas Health and Human Services Commission passed a rule which, if implemented, would prevent organizations affiliated with abortion providers from receiving funding under the Texas Women’s Health Program despite not providing abortions themselves (organizations which provide abortion services are already banned). In June arguments against the ruling begun in appeals court, and a final decision is pending.

Mandatory coverage for contraception. The Affordable Care Act took a beating from conservatives from the onset. It was called socialism, charged with infringing on religious freedoms, and attacked for specific provisions that covered women’s health. After it won the vote by the Supreme Court, which upheld it as law, women everywhere now have access to preventative care otherwise unavailable—including mammograms, screenings for cervical cancer, prenatal services and free contraception.

Private Colorado company wins an exception to birth control coverage law. On July 27, a federal judge offered an exception to the Obama administration’s health care requirement that group plans offer no-cost preventative care, including birth control. Although an exception had previously been made in order to circumvent the requirement for religious employers, this was the first exception made for a private, for-profit company.

Underfunding of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, which disproportionately affects women. If you haven’t heard of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome yet, you are not alone. CFS, sometimes referred to as CFS/ME, is a debilitating disease which can result in sufferers’ inability to participate in basic daily activities, such as leaving the house or cleaning. Although the disease is finally beginning to gain recognition, research funding has not caught up. Most estimates of federal funding between 2000 and 2010 suggest that fewer than $5 million went toward CFS research each year. For reference, the US spent $2.8 billion in 2010 on HIV research alone. If this seems like a weird comparison, consider a statement from Dr. Nancy Klimas, winner of the 2011 National Organization of Women (NOW)’s Women’s Health Award, that if she had to choose between HIV and CFS, two diseases she treats, she would choose to have HIV, because the lack of funding and support for CFS leaves many of her CFS patients unable to function.  And 75% of CFS sufferers are women.

Gender discrimination in insurance plans. One of the new benefits to women under the Affordable Care Act is the cessation of gender discrimination in health insurance plans. Until the bill is fully implemented in 2014, women are not protected from a practice known as “gender rating,” in which more than 90% of top insurance plans charge women significantly more than men for health coverage, even when the plans do not include maternity care. The rationale, as reported by the New York Times, is that “women use the health care system more than men.” Such discriminatory practices have existed in the majority of states. Although insurers justified such practices based on health system use, their rate discrimination shows wide ranges of variation-from 10% higher fees for women on some plans to 80% higher fees on others, calling into question the extent to which such discrimination was based on usage differences.

The Bottom Line: Know where candidates stand on women’s health issues before putting them in the position to make decisions for you. Awareness is the most important form of activism.  —Compiled by Diane Kuhn

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