A trio of female lawmakers has announced the introduction of new legislation that would protect women’s access to reproductive health services as unprecedented attacks on reproductive rights threaten to turn back the clock.
The “21st Century Women’s Health Act” — sponsored by Sens. Patty Murray (D-WA), Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), and Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) — aims to protect and build on the improvements to women’s health care made possible by the Affordable Care Act (ACA), also known as ‘Obamacare’ by extending coverage for critical services like birth control and family planning, maternity care, and assistance for sexual assault survivors.
On a press call, Sen. Murray noted that women in the U.S. are at a “critical moment” when it comes to their reproductive health. While Obamacare has greatly expanded access to affordable gender-based health services, conservative politicians across the country have waged a persistent campaign on state and federal levels, threatening to overturn legislation that protects women’s healthcare rights, and in many cases succeeding.
“We’ve made incredible progress when it comes to advancing women’s health and expanding access to reproductive care,” said Sen. Murray. However, she said, “there’s no question there is a lot more we need to do — especially because, unfortunately, some elected officials are laser-focused on taking us backwards.”
“As we continue to fight back against those who miss the Mad Men era, the 21st Century Women’s Health Act lays out important ways we can and should move forward on women’s health,” said Sen. Murray.
The new legislation focuses on several key areas of women’s health care, including maternity services, contraception, support for rape and sexual assault survivors, abortion and reproductive rights, and preventive care. Here’s an overview of what the bill proposes:
The proposed legislation would oblige all states to establish a “Maternal Mortality Review Committee” to address disparities in maternal mortality nationwide by more thoroughly assessing the factors contributing to pregnancy-related and pregnancy-associated deaths so that policy and medical solutions can be implemented to ensure that all women are able to experience pregnancy as safely as possible.
The Affordable Care Act now requires all private insurers to cover FDA-approved forms of contraception. The 21st Century Women’s Health Act would ensure that those same measures are extended to women who are insured through Medicaid.
The new legislation would also launch a public awareness campaign to educate women about their full rights and health-care benefits under the ACA, and it would create a database for women to inform the government when they are inappropriately charged a copay for birth control, as 11,000 CVS customers recently experienced.
The bill won’t fix the problems that have resulted from the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision, though Sen. Murray said on the call that plans are in the works to reintroduce a bill that will do that.
Support for Rape and Sexual Assault Survivors
The Act will ensure that all survivors of rape and sexual assault are provided with factual information about emergency contraception (EC) upon receiving treatment in an emergency room or hospital setting, and be provided with emergency contraception upon their request at no charge.
Presently, only 13 states and the District of Columbia require hospital emergency rooms to provide emergency contraception upon request to survivors of sexual assault. Additionally, nine states have enacted restrictions on emergency contraception, including six states that allow pharmacists to refuse to dispense emergency contraception.
It is estimated that 25,000 to 32,000 women become pregnant each year as a result of rape or incest. If used correctly, emergency contraception in conjunction with prompt medical treatment could help many of these rape survivors avoid the additional trauma of facing an unintended pregnancy.
A related provision would also support campus based sexual assault prevention educational programs and ensure access to EC at institutions of higher education.
Additionally, the Act provides for prevention partnerships with community-based organizations to prevent sexual violence.
Abortion and Reproductive Rights
Unlike another pro-choice bill in Congress, the Women’s Health Protection Act (WHPA), the new bill doesn’t do much to combat the hundreds of state-level restrictions that have made it increasingly difficult for women to access abortion services. It does, however, mandate a study of the harmful effects of those laws, which have become commonplace is state legislatures controlled by Republicans.
The Act would require the Department of Health and Human Services to conduct a study every 5 years on women’s health and report their findings to Congress, looking specifically at the impact of state laws that restrict access to abortion and geographic regions where access to family planning services is limited. The study will also report on economic impacts of such measures as well as the effect they have on pregnancy-related deaths.
Currently, 89 percent of counties in the U.S. lack abortion clinics, and hundreds of laws have been passed recently at the state and federal level to restrict women’s access to reproductive health services and family planning services.
Since the implementation of the ACA, all private insurance companies are required to cover birth control, breast pumps, breast feeding support services, as well as well-woman exams, cancer screenings, and treatment and testing for sexually transmitted infections.
Yet some women still face barriers to accessing the type of birth control that’s right for them. Women on Medicaid can’t always access the full range of contraceptive methods, or services like breast pumps and breast feeding counseling.
The new bill would address that by extending the ACA’s preventive care standards for these services to all Medicaid recipients. The legislation would strengthen Title X funding, extending crucial support to clinics and health centers across the country that provide these services at little to no cost for American women who would otherwise be unable to access this care.
Additionally, this legislation would establish a three-year grant program for the training of nurse practitioners that specialize in women’s health care, helping to ensure a stronger health care workforce and expanding access to care for low-income women.
To ensure women are fully informed about their rights and health care options, the Act would launch a public awareness campaign among community-based organizations, pharmacists, providers and other stakeholders making sure that women have information and access to the services available to them.
Furthermore, The 21st Century Women’s Health Act would help ensure that women are not wrongly forced to pay more for health care services now covered under Obamacare by creating a reporting database to collect reports of women being wrongfully charged for free preventive services.
Sen. Murray said that she and her co-sponsors will be seeking additional co-sponsors and are “confident” that they will receive “bipartisan support” of the legislation, and that “colleagues on both side of the aisle” will recognize its importance and sign on with their support. However, she acknowledged that they face an uphill battle in the GOP-controlled Congress, which seems to be more interested in cutting off women’s access to care, not expanding it.
“Now, I know there are those who will say ‘no’ right off the bat,” Sen Murray said in reference to her colleagues in Congress. “And my message to them is: I’ve heard that before. It hasn’t stopped me.”
Women’s health advocates praised the new legislation, calling it “the right approach at the right time to improve and protect women’s health.”
Cecile Richards, president, Planned Parenthood Federation of America, voiced Planned Parenthood’s support of the new bill, noting that while there has been significant progress for women’s health in recent years — from the teen pregnancy rate dropping to historically low levels, the implementation of the Affordable Care Act and its many benefits to women including the more than 48 million women nationally who can now access birth control without any co-pay — women still face ongoing threats to basic health care services.
The 21st Century Women’s Health Act “embraces all of the progress that has been made for women and in public health by building upon all of the successes and ensuring that women will continue to have access to the full range of reproductive health care,” she said.
Richards also called attention to the fact that since birth control has become legal, women have become the majority of undergraduate students and holders of graduate degrees. She noted that there is now an expectation among young women embarking on higher education that safe and legal abortion and birth control will be available to them, and that unplanned pregnancy should never be a deterrent in their educations or future careers.
“Women deserve to be treated with dignity and respect and this bill helps give them the tools they need to lead happy, healthy lives,” said Dr. Laurel Kuehl, Planned Parenthood of the Great Northwest’s Washington medical director. “From contraception to childbearing, a woman’s reproductive well-being is a major part of her health and her economic well-being.”