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Wall Street Journal
Why the Birth-Control Mandate Makes Sense
Jeanne Shaheen, Barbara Boxer and Patty Murray
February 7, 2012
Wall Street Journal - February 7, 2012

It can cost $600 a year for prescription contraceptives. That's a lot of money.

It was a historic victory for women's health when the Obama administration changed the law to require private health plans to provide preventive services including breast exams, HIV screening and contraception for free. This new policy will help millions of women get the affordable care they need.

Now, sadly, there is an aggressive and misleading campaign to deny this benefit to women. It is being waged in the name of religious liberty. But the real forces behind it are the same ones that sought to shut down the federal government last year over funding for women's health care. They are the same forces that just tried to pressure the Susan G. Komen Foundation into cutting off funding to Planned Parenthood for breast-cancer screenings. Once again, they are trying to force their politics on women's personal health-care decisions.

We are very glad that the president has stood up to these forces while protecting religious freedom on all sides. His administration should be commended, not criticized.

Contraception was included as a required preventive service on the recommendation of the independent, nonprofit Institute of Medicine and other medical experts because it is essential to the health of women and families. Access to birth control is directly linked to declines in maternal and infant mortality, can reduce the risk of ovarian cancer, and is linked to overall good health outcomes. Nationwide, 1.5 million women use contraceptives only as treatment for serious medical conditions. Most importantly, broadening access to birth control will help reduce the number of unintended pregnancies and abortions, a goal we all should share.

Proper family planning through birth control results in healthier mothers and children, which benefits all of us. It saves us money too: The National Business Group on Health - a nonprofit whose members are primarily Fortune 500 companies and large public-sector employers - estimated that it costs 15% to 17% more for employers to exclude birth-control coverage, both because other medical costs rise and because of lost productivity.

Contraception is not a controversial issue for the vast majority of Americans. Some 99% of women in the U.S. who are or have been sexually active at some point in their lives have used birth control, including 98% of Catholic women, according to the Guttmacher Institute. A recent survey by Hart Research shows 71% of American voters, including 77% of Catholic women voters, supported this provision broadening access to birth control.

Consistent with other federal policies, churches and other groups dedicated to teaching religious doctrine are exempted from providing this coverage under a "conscience clause." But the law does include institutions that have historic religious ties but also have a broader mission, such as hospitals and universities. That's also consistent with federal policy - and with laws that already exist in many states.

Those now attacking the new health-coverage requirement claim it is an assault on religious liberty, but the opposite is true. Religious freedom means that Catholic women who want to follow their church's doctrine can do so, avoiding the use of contraception in any form. But the millions of American women who choose to use contraception should not be forced to follow religious doctrine, whether Catholic or non-Catholic.

Catholic hospitals and charities are woven into the fabric of our broader society. They serve the public, receive government funds, and get special tax benefits. We have a long history of asking these institutions to play by the same rules as all our other public institutions.

So let's remember who this controversy is really about - the women of America. Already too many women struggle to pay for birth control. According to the Hart Research survey cited above, more than one-third of women have reported having difficulty affording birth control. It can cost $600 a year for prescription contraceptives. That's a lot of money for a mother working as a medical technician in a Catholic hospital, or a teacher in a private religious school.

Improving access to birth control is good health policy and good economic policy. It will mean healthier women, healthier children and healthier families. It will save money for businesses and consumers. We should hold to the promise we made women and provide this access broadly. Our nation will be better for it.

Ms. Shaheen, Ms. Boxer and Ms. Murray are Democratic U.S. senators from New Hampshire, California and Washington, respectively.

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