Considering that the Obama Administration came in on the wings of prayer, hope and change, this week’s decision to eliminate Medicaid family planning expansion from the economic stimulus package was a big disappointment. Bargaining away expanded Medicaid eligibility for 2.3 million additional poor and low-income uninsured women put political expedience before empathy and sound fiscal policy. Women’s health advocates raised voices of outrage and in doing so showed that they are leaders in calling our country back to its moral center of valuing and caring for all of God’s children.
It is said that some of the legislators who pushed for the elimination thought family planning had little to do with economic recovery and that others were looking for an excuse to stir up the culture wars. I believe they succeeded in doing the opposite – creating a teaching moment about poverty and reproductive health care. (See Amy Sullivan’s article on Time magazine’s website, dated Jan. 29.) Reproductive health care is not extraneous to the economic well-being of poor women and their families. A woman living in poverty is four times as likely to have an unintended pregnancy and five times as likely to have an unintended birth as her higher-income counterpart. Conversely, women with access to reproductive health information and services can continue their education or delay childbearing until their family income and circumstances are ready.
Family planning makes economic sense for policy as well as personal reasons: publicly funded clinics that serve Medicaid clients prevented 1.4 million unintended pregnancies last year, saving the government more than $4 billion in costs related to pregnancies and post-natal care. Bottom line, the provision that was stripped from the economic recovery bill would have saved the government $200 million over five years by decreasing costs related to pregnancies and post-natal care, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
I trust that the administration and Congress will find other ways to expand family planning services for poor and low-income women, either in other pieces of legislation or as a stand-alone bill. I hope that they proceed with the moral urgency that this issue deserves. I urge each of us to connect our support for family planning and reproductive health care to our beliefs – be they religious, spiritual, ethical, humanistic, or without category. We are all working for social justice.