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Access to contraception is not about sex — it’s about women’s health

Catholic bishops and politicians like Rick Santorum may wish to keep contraceptive devices away from women, but doing so puts women’s lives at risk.

Some forms of birth control can lower a woman's risk of uterine and ovarian cancers.

As the political fight escalates over the Obama administration’s pending rule requiring most employers to provide prescription contraception coverage to women, one thing keeps getting drowned out in the fracas:

Birth control plays a central role in keeping women healthy.

Catholic bishops and politicians like Rick Santorum may wish to keep birth control pills, IUDs, diaphragms and other contraceptive devices away from women, but they should know that doing so puts women’s lives at risk.

Access to contraception is not about sex. It’s about women’s health.

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First, there’s the fact that pregnancy, even for seemingly healthy women, poses serious health risks — risks that most women want to take on only on their own terms and at a time that they feel is right for them.

And they have good reason for wanting to control if and when they get pregnant. The United States is shamefully behind many other Western countries when it comes to protecting women from pregnancy-related health complications and deaths. As reported by Amnesty International in 2010, deaths from pregnancy and childbirth in the United States have doubled during the past two decades.

In 2006, two to three women died daily in the U.S. from pregnancy-related complications. That was a rate that was five times greater than in Greece and four times greater than in Germany.

If women do not have easy and inexpensive access to birth control — and other health care services and treatments — we can expect those pregnancy-related complications and deaths to increase.

A preventive treatment
Opponents of providing women with universal low-cost access to contraception also seem unaware that birth control protects many women with existing health problems from serious, even life-threatening medical complications.

“There are many, many disorders in which we recommend women not to conceive,” said Dr. Carrie Ann Terrell, assistant professor of obstetrics, gynecology and women’s health at the University of Minnesota, in a phone interview Thursday. 

Those disorders, she said, include heart malformations, clotting or bleeding diseases, and chronic medical conditions, like multiple sclerosis.

“We also prescribe birth control for many conditions other than contraception,” such as fibroids, endometriosis and heavy menstrual bleeding (menorrhagia), Terrell added.

Birth control pills give women with these conditions relief from pain and, in the case of fibroids and endometriosis, help control the growth of the disease, she explained. If a woman has developed anemia as a result of heavy bleeding, the pills also allow her body to restore its iron supplies.

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Some forms of birth control can lower a woman’s risk of uterine and ovarian cancers, Terrell added.

“I think if we’re talking about a society that values preventive health care and health maintenance, then I don’t think we can say in the same breath that we’re going to deny women contraception,” said Terrell.

Contraception is fundamental to women’s health care. The pending federal rule will give women access to that care at a cost they can afford. (But according to Associated Press, Obama  will announce today that religious employers will not have to cover birth control for their employees after all.)

It’s astonishing that we’re even debating this issue in 2012.