President Obama and the Future of Women’s Health

Along with the rest of the country eagerly anticipating the inauguration of Barack Obama, the majority of American women will be reveling in the fact that those who wanted to curb a woman’s right to choose didn’t make it to the Oval Office.

However, after the warm glow subsides, the reality of working to regain traction on ground that was lost during the Bush administration will set in.  With a president in the White House who understands and accepts a woman’s right to reproductive justice, the focus will now entail a reexamination of the multitude of factors that are part of the larger picture.

As the economic crisis looms large, women need to be able to connect the dots from financial empowerment to their health care issues.  In two recent events sponsored by the American Association of University Women, I was able to hear speakers define the picture.

At the first, Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) was the featured guest.  The incoming Democratic chair of the Congressional Caucus on Women’s Issues, she clarified that “We have to undo some things.”  She enumerated the “global gag rule, family planning money, and the conscience clause.”  The latter she compared to “hiring a fire fighter that won’t go into a burning building.”

With the goal of expanding paid and medical leave, childcare resources, and retirement issues…it all comes down to money.  That conversation was taken up in a press call sponsored by AAUW featuring women’s advocate, Rep. Rosa DeLauro (Dem-Ct.).  While the Lily Ledbetter Act has received a lot of recognition, the Paycheck Fairness Act – which ensures women a second avenue to pursue discrimination claims — is not as visible to the general public.

Both bills just passed in the House, but an outspoken advocacy push will be needed for passage in the Senate.  Advocacy links have been set up to facilitate contacting Senators.

So how does this connect back to reproductive justice and women’s health care? Do the math.  Women account for 50 percent of the work force.  One fifth of women are without health insurance, and half of women are in jobs without retirement plans.  When you read the statistic that women are earning 77 cents on the dollar, there is another set of figures beneath the surface.  Those tell the story about women of color.  Black women earn 67 cents on the dollar; Hispanic women are at the low end of the scale at 58 cents.

As Schakowsky noted in a 09/23/08 op-ed in The Hill, “Women are disproportionately affected by higher medical costs that eat up more of their wages.”  Women require more health care, but have fewer financial resources to pay the bills. They pay 68 percent more than men for out-of-pocket expenses.  As a result, one in four women is unable to pay her medical bills.

This can boil down to lethal consequences.  Schakowsky gives the figures of almost one in five women in the nation as being uninsured, and therefore at risk of being one of the 22,000 Americans who will die annually due to lack of coverage. Women of color, those who hold the lowest paying jobs, and those who are living in poverty are most adversely affected.

When converted into women’s medical realities the results are:

  • Uninsured women with breast cancer are 30 to 50 percent more likely to die from the disease.
  • Uninsured women are three time less likely to have had a Pap test in the last three years, setting them up for a 60 percent greater risk of late-stage cervical cancers.
  • 13 percent of all pregnant women have no insurance, and therefore are less likely to follow a course of prenatal care.
  • Breast cancer can be treated as a pre-existing condition

In tandem with the work of the 111th Congress to institute safety nets for women on the economic front and in the reform of healthcare, The Prevention First Act has been introduced to specifically deal with issues including Family Planning, Teen Pregnancy, Sex Ed programs, and Emergency Contraception for Rape Victims.

It should be noted that reproductive justice has different meanings across the board.  To a young woman in college it can be access to low-cost birth control.  To a mother-to-be it can translate as affordable pre-natal and follow-up infant care.  To a woman living in poverty, it can be the resources to travel to a health care provider or clinic.

It is worth reflecting on the fact that in 1969, President Nixon stated in a message to Congress:

“It is my view that no American woman should be denied access to family planning assistance because of her economic condition. I believe, therefore, that we should establish as a national goal the provision of adequate family planning services within the next five years to all those who want them but cannot afford them. This we have the capacity to do.”

On December 26, 1970, he signed Title X into law.

It’s been a long eight years, but we have survived the badlands of the Bush administration.  Good intentions on the part of the Obama administration towards women’s concerns are a start, but not a guarantee.  For that assurance, women need to look to their own resolve.

The article originally appeared on the RH Reality Check website.

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