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GOP ‘conscience clause’ ignores breadth of women’s health needs

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

birth control pills
Doctors prescribe birth control for many reasons other than contraception.

At one point during the past few days, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives included a so-called “conscience clause” in its funding resolution to keep the federal government running.

The clause would have given employers and insurers permission to opt out of providing any health-care services — most notably, prescription contraception coverage to women — that they personally object to for moral or religious reasons.

This is not the first time that we’ve seen Republicans (mostly) try to attach such a change to the Affordable Care Act. Nor, sadly, do I think it will be the last. But this latest effort to impose the “conscience clause” reminded me (yet again) of many politicians’ ignorance about health matters, particularly when those matters pertain to the female body.

For, as I’ve pointed out here before, access to contraception is not about sex. It’s about women’s health.

Pregnancy and health

First, pregnancy and childbirth pose significant health risks for women — risks that underscore why women need to be able to control if and when they get pregnant. Each year, a staggering 52,000 women in the United States experience severe pregnancy-related medical complications, including cardiac arrest, kidney failure, aneurysms and respiratory distress, and, tragically, about 650 of those women die, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

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Pregnancy is especially dangerous for women with certain pre-existing medical conditions, such as heart malformations and clotting or bleeding disorders.

If women are not given easy and inexpensive access to birth control and associated health-care services, we can expect to see the rate of pregnancy-related complications and deaths continue to increase — a rate that has already doubled, by the way, during the past two decades.

Politicians should be focusing on expanding access to high-quality health care for pregnant women (which the Affordable Care Act does) rather than making it more difficult and expensive for women to access birth control.

We have a lot of work to do on that front here in the United States. As Amnesty International has pointed out, “it’s more dangerous to give birth in the United States than in 49 other countries.”

Other medical reasons

But doctors prescribe birth control for many reasons other than contraception.

Indeed, a 2011 study by the Guttmacher Institute notes that more than 1.5 million women in the United States rely on oral contraceptive pills solely for non-contraceptive purposes. (That’s 14 percent of the 11.2 million women aged 15 to 44 who are prescribed oral contraceptives in the United States each year.)

Another 58 percent of pill users rely on the method at least in part for reasons other than preventing pregnancy.

Those reasons include:

  • controlling menstrual cramps and pain (cited by 31 percent of the women)
  • regulating menstrual periods (28 percent)
  • treating acne (14 percent)
  • treating endometriosis (4 percent)
  • other unspecified reasons (11 percent)

Many women surveyed in the Guttmacher study — 49 percent — cited more than one of the above non-contraceptive reasons for why they take the pill.

Interestingly, the Guttmacher study also found that teenagers are more likely to report using the pill for non-contraceptive reasons than for birth control.

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And here’s another statistic for all those politicians (and others) who think giving women access to birth control is a “moral” issue: About 800,000 women in the U.S. who take oral contraceptives have never had sex. They’re using the pill mostly to treat acne or to control their menstrual periods and pain associated with those periods.

As I said, contraception is not about sex; it’s about women’s health. It’s getting tiresome to have to keep pointing this out.