Women Are Not “Pork”

Responding to President Obama’s request, House Democrats cut a provision from the stimulus package that would expand contraceptive family planning for Medicaid patients—usually poor women and girls.

Why did this happen?

For years, reproductive justice activists have argued that the religious right’s real agenda is not just to eliminate abortion, but to end the historic rupture between sex and reproduction that took place in the 20th century.

I understand why that rupture is unsettling. Ironically, I was on my way to lecture about Margaret Sanger in my history course at UC Berkeley when I heard the news. Sanger was vilified for wanting to give women the choice of when or whether to bear children. In short, she challenged all of human history by proposing an historic rupture between sexuality and the goal of reproduction. But if reproduction ceased to be the goal, sexuality might become yoked to pleasure.

That is the legacy the religious right has fought against, and it’s that agenda that cut funding for family planning.

House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH) said, “How you can spend hundreds of millions of dollars on contraceptives? How does that stimulate the economy?”

Well, here’s the answer. Consider the teenage girl who’s sexually active. What happens to the economy when she bears a child without the means to support it? Conversely, what happens when she finishes her education, enters the labor force, earns a salary, and pays taxes? Do we want an unemployed poor woman to have more children than she can already feed, or do we want her to have access to contraception, get her life back on track, and hopefully find work instead of raising another child she cannot afford at this time?

The Congressional Budget Office also reported that by the third year of implementation, the measure would actually save $200 million over five years by preventing unwanted pregnancies and avoiding the Medicaid cost of delivering and then caring for these babies. The same CBO report found the House version of the stimulus would have a “noticeable impact on economic growth and employment in the next few years, with much of the mandatory spending for Medicaid and other programs likely to occur in the next 19 to 20 months.” During the first three years, the CBO report said, the cost and savings are negligible.

This decision was an unnecessary political capitulation to Republicans. According to the AP and the Austin American-Statesman, the president was “courting Republican critics of the legislation” who had argued that contraception is not about stimulus or growth. Unfortunately, too many people have uncritically accepted that argument. But many others have noted that the package is filled with provisions for health care, which certainly includes family planning. Many other provisions, moreover, are also not growth-oriented, and yet it was poor women’s bodies that Democrats bartered for the approval and votes from Republicans that they don’t need and will seldom get.

That same morning, New York Times columnist Bob Herbert asked “Why anyone listens to [Republicans]?” Why, indeed. They want the Democrats to fail. They want the new president to fail. And so they described women’s bodies as “pork” and asked that the funding be cut for contraception.

Women’s groups are legitimately outraged at what has happened. The Planned Parenthood Federation of America called the measure a “victim of misleading attacks and partisan politics.” Mary Jane Gallagher, president of the National Family Planning and Reproductive Health Association, said: “Family planners are devastated that President Obama and Congress have decided to take funding for critical family planning services out of the stimulus. Their willingness to abandon the millions of families across the country who are in need is devastating.”

“The Medicaid Family Planning State Option fully belonged in the economic recovery package,” said Marcia D. Greenberger, co-president of the National Women’s Law Center. “The Republican leadership opposition to the provision shows how out of touch they are with what it takes to ensure the economic survival of working women and their families.”

While Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) defended the measure as recently as last Sunday, President Barack Obama and Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, bowed to Republican pressure and agreed to drop the measure. And although the Senate has not yet voted, it’s unlikely that funding for expanded family planning will be approved. In short, the Democrats decided it just wasn’t worth fighting about. According to the Washington Wire, one House Democratic aide said, “It ended up being a distraction and it will be removed.”

So, poor women who want reproductive health care and contraception are both “pork” and a “distraction.” Is this the change we have dreamed about?

President Obama certainly believes in contraception for poor women and girls on Medicaid. He won the election, as he recently pointed out. He doesn’t have to cave in to Republican demands to restrict women’s choices and health care.

The best way he and Democrats can handle this terribly misguided decision is to pass legislation to fund expanded family planning as soon as possible, before half the population wakes up and realizes that once again, women have been treated as expendable, and that their bodies have been bartered for political expediency.