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Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Contraception is Prevention!

Since the passage of the health reform law, prevention has become a much talked about issue. We all know that a lot of pain, suffering, and money could be saved with good prevention strategies, but the big question is: Will prevention for women be taken seriously?

Yesterday, we took an enormous step forward for women's preventive health across the nation. The Institute of Medicine (IOM) released a report recommending that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) deem a number of different services as free preventive care, including contraception. Now, HHS has to decide whether it will listen to the Institute of Medicine's recommendation or if it will be swayed by other parties.

Incredibly, there is still debate over whether birth control falls under the category of prevention. It's important that we stand up and say: Being serious about preventive health for women means taking birth control seriously. Access to affordable birth control is important for all women, and it is especially important for low-income women. And in our country, unfortunately, young women of color are twice as likely to be low-income. The truth is unplanned pregnancies can be very costly – to one's health, one's wallet, and one's future – especially for women of color.

"Though we have made progress in reducing teen pregnancy over the past 20 years, still far too many teens are having babies. Preventing teen pregnancy can protect the health and quality of life of teenagers, their children, and their families throughout the United States."

-Thomas R. Frieden, Director of CDC

It's common knowledge that unplanned pregnancies can be harmful to women physically, mentally, and economically – especially for teenagers. But the consequences of an unplanned pregnancy can be particularly dire for young women of color, who are twice as likely to be low-income, and are more likely to get lower-quality educations, face additional barriers to health care, and have fewer opportunities for economic advancement.

Unfortunately, while teen pregnancy rates have been dropping, overall rates among Latinas and African Americans remain alarmingly high – 131 and 134 per thousand, respectively – both of which are more than two and a half times higher than non-Hispanic whites.

And that's just one health outcome of many that leave something to be desired. For example, in the African American community, maternal mortality is more than two and a half that of white mothers and infant mortality is nearly two and half times higher as well. While infant mortality outcomes for Latinos generally are slightly better than average, for Puerto Ricans the rate of infant death is an alarming 40% higher than for non-Hispanic whites. And those numbers capture only the worst outcome: death. Add to those statistics the non-lethal complications, such as premature babies with continuing health problems, and you can see the higher health risks involved in pregnancies for women of color.

Preventing unplanned pregnancy is not just a matter of protecting women's health, it is also a matter of economic stability. When a woman has a baby at a young age, it is harder for her to move forward educationally and economically. She can get stuck in poverty, and poverty is hazardous to health.

The message is clear: We need to work on making contraception more accessible and affordable, not less so. Including contraception as a preventive benefit in the essential benefit package is an indispensible tool for communities, especially communities of color, to improve our health and economic stability.