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Birth Control Belongs in the Stimulus Bill | The Nation

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Katha Pollitt

Katha Pollitt

Politics, feminism, culture, books and daily life.

Birth Control Belongs in the Stimulus Bill

To the outrage of many feminists and family planners, yesterday Democrats heeded President Obama and dropped from the stimulus bill aprovision that would have made it easier for states to offercontraception through Medicaid to low-income women not covered byMedicaid now. This followed several days in which Republicans mocked theitem as frivolous pork, like Las Vegas's proposed Mob Museum or thereseeding of the national mall. And how dare Nancy Pelosi suggest thatwomen should be helped to avoid unwanted pregnancies in the midst of aneconomic crisis! It's eugenics and China's one-child policy rolled intoone. You wonder how giving women more freedom to plan their kids equalsforcing them not to have any? Ask Chris Matthews, that noted expert onwomen, who on last night's Hardball seemed to think the US hadnarrowly escaped becoming a reproductive gulag:" It turns out the ideaof getting people to have fewer children didn't sell as national policy. Maybe people don't like Washington, which has done such a bang-up jobregulating the sharpies on Wall Street, to decide it's now time toregulate the number of kids people might be in the mood for."

There are people who thought Obama practiced some clever politicaljiu-jitsu by bending over backwards to meet Republican objections. Supposedly, this bipartisan gesture would make it harder forRepublicans to reject the bill. Whoops, guess not: House Republicansjust voted against it unanimously. Backup theory: Well, now Obamalooks reasonable and statesmanlike, while Republicans look rigid andinsane. The stimulus will pass, and Republicans will get no credit.Low-income women get the shaft, but they should be used to it by now.

But then there are those who think birth control really doesn't belongin the bill.Matt Yglesias writes, "Unlike some, I'm not per se outragedby the idea of dropping a family planning provision from the stimulusbill in response to conservative objections. I'm all for the provision,but it's genuinely tangential to the point of the bill, so if this isreally what's standing between us and a universe in which a substantialnumber of conservative get on the stimulus train so be it." Over atSlate's XX Factor, E.J. Graff, rather surprisingly, agrees.

Is birth control tangential to the stimulus? Only if all healthspending is, but no one (so far) is arguing that the massive sums forhealth care be removed from the bill. In fact, when it comes to keepingwomen hale and hearty contraception is right up there with childhoodvaccines and antibiotics. So, given that the stimulus bill containsother health provisions, including 4 billion dollars for preventivecare, why is contraception different? Because anti-choice Republicans say so? If health care belongs in the bill, and birth control is healthcare, then it is not "tangential." QED.

I would go further: expanding access to contraception does indeed help the economy. The production, prescribing, buying and selling ofbirth control is an economic activity--funding more of it means moreclinics, more clinic workers, more patients,more customers, more peoplemaking the products. Moreoever, the provision removed from the stimulusbill would spend money now--about 550 million, over ten years, a drop inthe bucket--to save the government much more money later, as theCongressional Budget Office estimates would happen within a few years.(Actually, according to the Wall Street Journal blog, it would save anannual $100 billion, but I'm putting that in parenthesis because it sucha huge amount I keep thinking it has to be a typo.

Update: Yes! According to the New York Times, the CBO actuallysays it would save 200 million over five years. More as I track down thesource of this elusive stat.)

More important, what about the economics of actually existing women andfamilies? This is no time to be saddling people with babies they don'twant and can't provide for, who will further reduce the resourcesavailable for the kids they already have and further limit parents'ability to get an education or a job. In a Depression, birth rates godown for a reason. People. Have. No. Money. Furthermore, when peoplelose their jobs they lose their health insurance. A year's supply ofpills is around $600 retail. That's a significant amount of money tolow-income women.

In his first week in office, President Obama did some reallywonderful things for women: He overturnedthe global gag rule, indicated his support for resuming funding for theUnited Nations Family Planning Program, supported the Ledbetter Act, and put educationand health care high on the stimulus bill, thus ensuring women will getsome of the work the bill will create. It is bewildering that hesacrificed low-income women's rights and health in a vain bid to wooantediluvian rightwing misogynist Republican ideologues who will never,ever vote his way.

Call the white House comment line at 202 224 3121 and tell PresidentObama to put back the birth control provision. Then call your Senatorsat 202 224 3121 and tell them the same.

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