Women Could Get Free Birth Control With Health Reform Law

Expert panel meets this month to discuss whether to make contraception free for women.

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Women could soon be entitled to free contraception, thanks to the health reform law. That's right, free birth control pills, free intrauterine devices, free patches, and free vaginal rings. As part of the law, a panel of experts will decide over the next few months which services will be offered free to women including maternity care, pelvic exams, and—more controversial—contraception. Many women spend as much as $50 a month for hormonal contraception or $200 to $400 to have an IUD inserted, yet some, squeezed by the recession, have found themselves skipping pills or going without birth control altogether. "We need to do everything we can to ensure that women have access to birth control," said Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards at a press breakfast in Washington, D.C. a few weeks ago. Women, she added, shouldn't have to choose between birth control and basics like rent, tuition, and childcare.

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To Richards, free contraception should be a no-brainer. Publicly-funded contraception saves taxpayers $4 for every $1 spent by preventing nearly 2 million pregnancies and 810,000 abortions every year, according to a 2009 report from the Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit reproductive research organization based in New York City. And a recent report from the Congressional Budget Office found that providing contraception to Medicaid patients would save $700 million over the next decade in medical costs.

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Planned Parenthood, which operates low-cost clinics that provide abortions and preventive healthcare services, has launched a petition drive to garner 1 million signatures in support of free contraceptive coverage and even commissioned a survey of nearly 1,150 American voters showing that three-quarters of them do, indeed, support such coverage.

Religious groups, largely silent until now, have begun to mount some resistance to free contraception coverage. Jeanne Monahan, a health policy expert at the conservative Family Research Council, a nonprofit advocacy group, told the Associated Press on Sunday that the group would oppose any mandate that wouldn't allow doctors or pharmacists the option to refuse to dispense or fill birth control prescriptions for moral or religious reasons, known as a conscience exemption. She also told the AP that she's also suspicious about Planned Parenthood's involvement in the effort, since the group is a leading abortion provider. I should add that the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, which counts most ob-gyns in the U.S. as members, has joined Planned Parenthood in its petition drive. Other groups have so far declined to weigh in, though that could change once the debate heats up. In its support of conscience exemptions for doctors, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops argued in 2008 that certain contraceptives, including the pill, act as abortifacients by causing a fertilized egg to be expelled from the uterus. Religious conservative groups could also oppose mandatory coverage for emergency contraception, taken up to three days after sex to prevent pregnancy, which the groups also see as an abortion drug.

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No doubt, those with the strongest opinions on this issue will loudly proclaim their views on cable news channels over the next few weeks. I just hope, though, that the facts don't get lost in all the rhetoric about whether contraception kills potential life. As I previously blogged last year, Holland has the lowest abortion rate in the world and also provides full coverage for birth control pills, IUDs, and vasectomies. At the bottom of that blog post, I asked whether readers supported contraception coverage as part of health reform: 87 percent of responded "yes."