Reproductive Freedom and Economic Equality: Our Fight in 2017

January 24, 2017

As President and CEO of Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts (PPLM), Dr. Jennifer Childs-Roshak leads the largest freestanding reproductive health care provider in the Commonwealth. She also serves as the President of the Planned Parenthood Advocacy Fund of Massachusetts, the advocacy and political arm of PPLM. Dr. Childs-Roshak is the first physician to lead these organizations in their histories. Prior to joining PPLM in November 2015, Dr. Childs-Roshak served as the Boston Regional Medical Director for Atrius Health while personally caring for 1,000 patients as a primary care physician. Dr. Childs-Roshak received her medical degree from Temple University School of Medicine in Philadelphia and holds a Masters of Business Administration from the Boston University School of Management.

2016 was a rocky year for many of us – but one personal highlight for me was when Massachusetts passed groundbreaking equal pay legislation. With this new law, our state took a necessary step forward for women – and put the issue of pay equity at the forefront.

But as we head into 2017, one area critical to women’s economic well-being remains at risk, both here in Massachusetts and across the country – and that is whether or not a woman has affordable access to a full range of sexual and reproductive health care services.

While stronger laws that ensure equal pay play a critical role in addressing economic disparities faced by women, these disparities will persist if we don’t enact comprehensive solutions that consider all the compounding issues that lead to income inequality – including family planning.

The ability to plan, prevent, and space pregnancies is directly linked to benefits for women, men, children, and society including: more educational and economic opportunities, healthier babies, and more stable families.

Many of the gains women have made since 1965 — in timing and spacing our children, in obtaining education, entering the workforce, and moving closer to pay equity — are the direct result of access to birth control.  In fact, birth control was named one of the 10 great public health achievements in the 20th century by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. As a primary care doctor for over 20 years, I’ve seen countless patients utilize birth control to effectively plan their families and pursue their life goals and dreams. And as a mother of two young men myself, I too have used birth control to plan my family, my career, and my life. I simply wouldn’t be where I am today without reliable access to birth control.

However, barriers to accurate sexual health information and affordable reproductive health care still persist for many women, particularly for women of color – both here in Massachusetts and across the country.

More than 55 million women now have access to no-copay birth control thanks to the Affordable Care Act (ACA). However, existing loopholes in the law allow some insurance companies to deny Massachusetts women from being able to access the birth control option that’s right for them. With national attacks on the ACA, the no-copay birth control benefit could very well be at risk for all women – including those in Massachusetts.

Women would also lose access to other no-copay preventive services such as breast and cervical cancer screenings and STI testing and treatment.  Being a woman could once again be considered a pre-existing condition allowing health insurers to deny health coverage to tens of millions of women. Repealing the ACA would disproportionately impact low-income women and families – and have a dramatic impact on a woman’s ability to access affordable health care and make ends meet. It’s essential that in Massachusetts, we do everything we can to safeguard a woman’s health insurance coverage from discriminatory and costly practices that contribute to income inequality.

It’s been 44 years since the United States Supreme Court handed down Roe v. Wade, and yet we continue to see enormous hurdles impeding a woman’s ability to access safe, legal abortion in states like Texas and Ohio – including mandatory waiting periods, 20-week abortion bans, and other medically-unsound restrictions.  Even here in Massachusetts, we have a 19th-century archaic, unconstitutional state law still on the books that bans abortion.

All of these barriers to reproductive freedom have a direct impact on the long-term economic burdens women face in their lifetime, underscoring the fact that reproductive freedom is intrinsically tied to economic justice. If we want to move Massachusetts forward and holistically address income inequality, we must prioritize passing state policies – just like we did around the wage gap – that defend access to birth control and preventive health care and protect a woman’s fundamental right to safe, legal abortion.

This can be done. In the new state legislative session, there is a contraceptive access bill that would close current contraceptive coverage loopholes and protect the no-copay birth control benefit for Massachusetts women. Legislation has also been filed to repeal the 19th-century archaic state law that’s still on the books.  We’re doing everything we can to ensure all Massachusetts residents can continue to access the sexual and reproductive health care they need – no matter what.

Reproductive health issues cannot be swept under the rug if our state hopes to close the gender wage gap for real and achieve economic equality.  Regardless of the national climate, Massachusetts has a responsibility to serve as a leader on these issues. I’m optimistic that we can do that and more.