See also: Faith Voices on Reproductive Justice: Religion and Equality by Claire Markham, Lauren Kokum, and Kulsum Ebrahim
This column contains a correction.
Last month, the U.S. Congress adjourned for summer recess, not to return again until after Labor Day. With their departure, anti-choice politicians thwarted attempts to advance important reproductive health measures that would improve the lives of women, families, and their communities. Access to reproductive health care is much more than an ideological battle waged within the U.S. political system. The current political gridlock also has very real implications for the nation’s poorest women—many of whom are women of color, who are already often overlooked.
Vital support for public health
President Barack Obama’s administration has warned that key federal programs intended to combat the Zika virus infection—declared a “public health emergency” by the World Health Organization—will run out of money while Congress is in recess. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC, reports that more than 7,000 people have been diagnosed with Zika in the United States and its territories to date.* In one Miami neighborhood, a total of 14 cases prompted the CDC to issue its first ever travel warning due to an infectious disease in the continental United States. Nearly 1,000 of these Zika victims are pregnant women, who are at the highest risk for severe consequences. The infection can cause microcephaly—a serious and sometimes fatal birth defect. Estimates suggest that more than 2 million pregnant women in the United States are at risk of potentially contracting Zika this summer and fall.
Lawmakers who play political games with funding to fight Zika are stalling action on an urgent crisis. Despite guidance from national and global public health experts, the U.S. House of Representatives Republicans’ proposed Zika response funding bill neglected to include vital support for women’s health care. Instead, it attempted to strip funding for Title X during the appropriations process; often, Title X provides the only means that low-income people have to obtain critical health care such as family planning services, contraception, cancer screenings, and other preventive services. More than 90 percent of Title X’s recipients are women, and three-fifths of recipients are people of color who are mostly uninsured or young.
The U.S. Senate’s debate on Zika funding also has not been void of partisanship. Senate Republicans inserted unpalatable language into unfocused legislation that would reduce funding for Planned Parenthood clinics; cut critical provisions of the Affordable Care Act; and reverse a ban on flying Confederate flags in military cemeteries. Further, the $1.1 billion bill reallocated $107 million from vital Ebola response programs. As Congress remains in recess, Zika is expected to hit hardest in the Southern states, and the rejection of potential compromises leaves the nation’s poorest women to pay the price.
Access to health care coverage for contraceptives and abortion
In Zubik v. Burwell—one of several challenges to the contraception mandate in the Affordable Care Act—religiously affiliated nonprofits sought further exemptions to providing employees birth control coverage in their health insurance plans. The plaintiffs’ desire to impose their religious or moral beliefs on female employees undermines real religious liberty that should be afforded equally to all. The U.S. Supreme Court failed to issue a decision in Zubik, remanding it back to the states for continued proceedings in 2016. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of women wait for justice, especially women of color, who disproportionately lack seamless access to contraception and maintain the highest rates of unplanned pregnancy, abortion, and maternal mortality among all women—all of which take a toll on the psychological, economic, and social vitality of their communities.
All women should be afforded the dignity to make personal decisions about pregnancy and childbearing. And if a woman deems it necessary, neither her economic status nor her type of insurance should prevent her from accessing an abortion. The Hyde Amendment—a rider regularly attached to annual appropriations bills—prohibits certain funding, such as Medicaid insurance, from being used to cover abortion services. Since 1976, the Hyde Amendment has perpetuated health disparities for the nation’s most vulnerable women. Poor women, low-income women, immigrants, and those living in rural areas—many of whom are women of color—are more likely to rely on Medicaid for coverage and feel the harmful effects of the Hyde Amendment most acutely. These women are less likely to be able to pay out of pocket for the increasing costs associated with obtaining an abortion. Creating two standards of rights for women—those who can afford care and those who cannot—is not equality.
Still, however, anti-choice politicians have refused to advance a practical solution that would address these gaps in coverage: the Equal Access to Abortion Coverage in Health Insurance, or EACH, Woman Act. Introduced with more than 70 congressional co-sponsors and the support of 36 women’s health, rights, and justice advocacy organizations, the EACH Women Act effectively would negate the Hyde Amendment and ensure that all women have insurance that provides for abortion care—regardless of race, socioeconomic status, or other factors. What’s more, Peace Corps volunteers, Native Americans, and women in federal prisons and detention centers who are subject to other abortion funding restrictions would have access to coverage under the legislation.
In order for women to make the best decisions for themselves and their families, they need unfettered access to health care that is free from political interference. Comprehensive justice ensures that all women, not just the wealthy few, have the political, social, and spiritual resources to live a full and healthy life. Come September, politicians should surrender their own agendas and be vigilant in their efforts to protect the rights of every woman they were elected to serve.
Lauren Kokum is the Special Assistant for the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress.
* Correction, August 11, 2016: This column has been updated to reflect the current number of Zika cases.