Access to Contraception is an Economic Issue

Jan 10, 2012Bryce Covert

Supporting family planning saves the government and low-income women money. The GOP should be challenged when it threatens to take that support away.

People tend to want to split debates along the line between economic issues and social ones. But that line isn't always so easy to demarcate. Case in point: Contraception was a big item on the agenda at the first of two GOP debates this weekend, but many commentators were impatient for questions about the economy. Yet questions about women's access to contraception have everything to do with the economy, and not just for the women who use it.

Investing in contraception access makes sense for the economy at large, particularly in an age of austerity. Globally, every dollar spent on contraceptive services saves $1.40 in maternal and newborn health care costs by helping prevent unintended pregnancies. More specifically, every dollar invested in contraceptive access saves $4.02 in Medicaid expenditures that would have gone to pregnancy-related care. But there's still room to save more -- half of all pregnancies in the U.S. each year are unintended, and those who consistently and correctly use contraception make up only 5 percent of unintended pregnancies, leaving the rest to many who can't get what they need.

Access to contraception is also a class issue, and the class divide in unwanted pregnancies is growing. When Republicans threaten to defund Planned Parenthood or Title X funding, which subsidizes family planning services, they threaten to make it more difficult -- or impossible -- for low-income women to get the contraception they need. It's a dire need that affects almost all women: virtually all those aged 15-44 who have ever had sex have used at least one method. The typical woman has to use contraceptives for about 30 years to achieve the number of children she wishes to have. And 43 million women -- seven in 10 -- are sexually active but don't want to get pregnant. Hard to do without contraception.

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Over 7 million of those women get contraception from publicly funded family planning clinics, and many will have nowhere else to turn if those clinics are defunded. One-quarter of all poor women who obtain contraceptive services each year do so at a place that gets Title X funding. Many of them likely do so because they have no insurance -- four in 10 women of reproductive age don't. This is part of why Title X-supported centers saved taxpayers $3.4 billion in 2008, or $3.74 for every dollar spent on contraceptive care, by helping these women avoid unwanted pregnancies. If these centers shut down, low-income women without coverage are hit first and hardest. They're left with no other options.

But even women who are lucky enough to have health insurance may not be able to afford contraception. Many can't afford the high co-pays. Contraception often requires a prescription, yet one in five health care providers report that most clients seeking contraception struggle to pay for the necessary doctor's visit.

None of this is to dismiss the excruciating levels of unemployment we're currently experiencing or the miserably low rates of economic growth. The GOP candidates better have something to say about how to fix the economy and put people back to work. But when they also have extreme views about whether women should be allowed or able to access contraception, it's no small point for them or the economy at large. They're making an economic move when they threaten to curtail access.

Bryce Covert is Editor of New Deal 2.0.

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