National Women's Health Week 2013: Government Must Stop Playing Politics With Women's Health

May 12-18 has been declared National Women’s Health Week by the Department of Health and Human Services. If you go to the official HHS website, you will see it cheerfully state, “It’s your time!” They also recommended five ways to celebrate the week: see your doctor for preventive health services, get active, eat healthy, manage stress and quit smoking.

It seems ironic to celebrate women’s health this week, given that most of the news regarding access to health services for women has been pretty bad recently. Multiple states are passing increasingly restrictive legislation to prevent us from making basic medical choices about if and when we become pregnant, members of Congress from Arizona and Utah are attempting to do the same thing for D.C., and the Senate’s immigration reform bill prevents women from accessing health care under the Affordable Care Act, simply because they were not born in the U.S.

How are we supposed to “manage stress” when the Obama administration is actively restricting our access to emergency contraception, even after the FDA and a federal judge have declared it is both safe and appropriate for women of all ages to use to prevent pregnancy?

This is the same president who, just a few weeks ago, spoke at Planned Parenthood’s national conference — the first sitting president to do so, ever — and assured us, "As long as we've got to fight to make sure women have access to quality health care, and as long as we’ve got to fight to protect a woman’s right to make her own choices about her own health, I want you to know that you’ve got a president who’s going to be right there with you."

So where was Obama when his Department of Justice appealed for a stay in the implementation of Judge Edward Korman’s ruling that age restrictions on Plan B One Step should be lifted?

Access to emergency contraception is critical to helping people of all ages prevent unintended pregnancies — but under current rules only people 17 or older can purchase Plan B without a prescription. Because of these restrictions, Plan B is kept behind pharmacy counters, which are usually open limited hours. Pharmacists are required to ask for identification proving age, which many people do not have, even if they are well over 17. By complying with the FDA’s original decision, the Obama administration would make Plan B available to low-income women, undocumented women, women who use public transportation and countless others who don’t have valid ID, but still want to prevent pregnancy when their primary method of birth control fails.

In addition to these limitations, many pharmacists are unclear on the law and refuse to dispense emergency contraception to people who should legally be able to obtain it (for example, a 17-year-old might be denied Plan B because her pharmacist assumes you have to be 18 or 21 to obtain it without prescription, which is shockingly common). Keeping emergency contraception behind the counter also puts us at the mercy of pharmacists’ personal politics and beliefs. Many states allow pharmacists to refuse to dispense medication that they personally oppose — although the laws are written to include any medication, let’s be honest, no pharmacist is going to deny your blood pressure medication. By lifting the age and prescription restrictions, we will no longer see limits to access based on where we live — and pharmacists will no longer be allowed to apply their personal politics to our health care decisions.

The “compromise” that the administration offered - lowering the age to access Plan B without a prescription to 15 and moving it from behind the counter to pharmacy shelves - just does not work. Even fewer 15-year-olds possess a valid ID, and the same groups of people who can’t prove that they are 17 will not be able to prove that they are 15.

This decision — just like the first decision to overrule the FDA’s scientific recommendation — is about politics, not health or safety. It’s letting fear and squeamishness of young people’s sexuality take precedent over medical science and the best interest of young people.

As Nancy Northup, President of the Center for Reproductive Rights stated after Judge Korman’s decision was made public, "Judge Korman's sound ruling simply orders the government to do what the experts at FDA have been trying to do for years: to put politics aside and let science guide us to a policy that makes emergency contraception readily accessible to all women when they need it most urgently."

Instead of asking women to celebrate National Women’s Health Week by “getting active,” the Department of Health and Human Services should celebrate our health by making emergency contraception available to everyone who needs it, regardless of age, without a prescription.

The Obama administration has made huge strides in improving access to contraception and a whole host of other women’s health needs, and it should be continuing that progress, not stifling it. Demonstrating that every woman in the U.S. has the right to control her own sexual and reproductive life regardless of age, location, income, or immigration status would be an excellent next step.

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Mari Schimmer

California native, DC resident, Field Director at Choice USA a national organization working with young leaders in the reproductive justice movement

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