Column, "Our Health and Our Rights Are at Stake," by Haydeé Morales, Vice President of Education and Training, Planned Parenthood of New York City, published in Spanish in El Diario (2/23/12)
Are you following the noisy national debate over the coverage of birth control in health insurance plans? If you’ve lost track of it lately, you’re surely not alone. The story line changes almost daily, as policymakers offer new concessions to opponents of contraception and the opponents come back to demand even greater ones. But if you’re tempted to tune the whole thing out, I urge you not to. The stakes are still high, especially for Latinas. Our health and rights are at stake, and our voices need to be heard.
The question is whether insurance plans sponsored by employers should have to cover birth control. Women around the country celebrated last summer, when the Obama administration included birth control among the basic preventive services that new plans will have to cover in full from now on. On the advice of outside health experts, the administration set a policy requiring full coverage but allowing “religious employers,” such as churches, to exclude contraceptives from their health plans if they and their employees shared religious objections to birth control.
Virtually all American women, including 98 percent of Catholics, use contraceptives – and 28 states already require insurance plans to cover them. But the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops angrily denounced the President’s policy as soon as it was announced. Instead of a narrow exemption for houses of worship, the bishops and their allies in Congress demanded a broad exemption that would also cover church-affiliated hospitals, schools and universities – even though they employ millions of non-Catholics who lack other sources of birth control.
President Obama has come up with a compromise that should make everyone happy. In keeping with the bishops’ demand, his new plan lets church-affiliated institutions exclude birth control from their insurance plans. But to protect public health, it requires employers’ insurance companies to cover birth control directly when the employers themselves refuse.
The public – including Catholics – still strongly supports universal coverage of birth-control. In a New York Times poll released last week [Feb 15], a majority of Catholic voters agreed that religiously affiliated employers should offer health insurance that covers contraceptives. Yet social conservatives are still determined to block the President’s compromise plan. The bishops’ group is condemning it as “government coercion of religious people” and promising to block it in Congress or the courts. This is deeply ironic because the president’s plan doesn’t force anyone to use birth control. To the contrary, it prevents the coercion of women by employers, politicians and church officials.
Why is this so important to Latinas? Because no one has the right to force anything on us – not sex, not pregnancy, and not a ban on health care services we need. For many of us, especially the one in four living in poverty, cost is still a barrier to contraception. If we can remove that barrier through universal insurance coverage, we will be freer to plan our futures and build strong, healthy families. There are 10.5 million reproductive-age Latinas in this country – 560,000 in New York City alone. Let’s make sure that our policymakers hear from every one of us on this issue.