Protecting women's access to affordable health care

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The tremendously important and oddly controversial topic of women’s health has again sparked a debate in America. From the attacks on reproductive rights in the Republican debates to President Barack Obama’s proposed birth control mandate, access to contraceptives has become the newest front in the “war on religion” according to many members of the U.S. Congress. Several UT students organized Friday’s “Students for Birth Control” rally featuring Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, to play a role in this crucial discussion.

The rally ­— organized by the University Democrats, the Texas Freedom Network Student Chapter, Voices for Reproductive Justice and Law Students for Reproductive Justice — featured speakers such as UT associate professor Terri Givens and students from UT and St. Edward’s University. About 200 people attended, both supporting and opposing the rally’s message. Braving the mud and rain, a lively crowd cheered on Richards as she detailed the facts about birth control. For example, she noted that 99 percent of women overall and 98 percent of Catholic women use birth control, making the claim that birth control and promiscuity are correlated seem suspect. She also described Planned Parenthood’s services: Only 3.3 percent of its funding is used to help women seek abortions, contrary to claims made by the enraged protesters at the rally that the number is higher.

Reasons for holding the rally are numerous. Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum spoke out against Planned Parenthood’s services and federal funding. Earlier this month, the Susan G. Komen Foundation announced its plans to withdraw financial support from Planned Parenthood, reducing the organization’s breast cancer screening services. On a more positive note for women’s health, Obama proposed a contentious birth control mandate that would require insurance companies to offer birth control to female employees of religious institutions. This mandate sparked heated debate among religious institutions in the United States, including the Catholic Church, that feel the mandate directly challenges the right of Americans to practice their religions free from government interference. The president, however, affirmed women’s right to have access to birth control when he argued that “no woman’s health should depend on who she is or where she works or how much money she makes.”

UT student and rally organizer Leslie Tisdale spoke about the current birth control debate unfolding in Washington, D.C., and how “it’s absolutely infuriating that men in Washington, D.C., are trying to take control of women’s bodies and their access to affordable health care and contraceptives.” Tisdale was referring to how Congress famously called an almost all-male hearing to discuss Obama’s proposed mandate last Thursday. With literally no women on one panel and only two women on the other panel, the discussion was incredibly biased and unrepresentative of a majority of American women’s point of view when it comes to reproductive health. Women must be involved in discussions about their bodies and health.

This mandate — which does not require religious institutions to provide birth control to employees but rather the insurance companies of the institutions — will ensure that all women who desire birth control will have affordable access to it, regardless of their career. The mandate also ensures that insured students at religiously affiliated universities, such as St. Edward’s University, would have access to birth control. Rather than infringing on religious freedoms, the mandate protects American women’s right to affordable health care. As 99 percent of women use birth control in the country, this affordable access is essential to assisting both men and women lead responsible lives.

Many students, though energized by the rally, remain dumbfounded as to why such a rally is necessary in 2012. Plan II junior Jenny Kutner wonders why we are still debating the “common sense issue of providing health care for American citizens — even the ones with uteruses.” As Richards stated at the rally, the ability to control one’s fertility leads to individual economic growth and increased political power, thus making birth control a vital and beneficial tool to aid women around the country and to protect those with low socioeconomic status.

The birth control rally brought the controversial debate about contraception to Texas and demonstrated that both men and women support Planned Parenthood. Birth control, fundamental to the lives of both men and women, should be available and affordable for women who choose to use it as it is a basic form of health care. Obama’s mandate helps to protect this necessary right. Our country should stop regressing from the significant strides it has taken in terms of women’s rights and health.

Waliany is a Plan II and government senior.