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At Last, Prevention First

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For reproductive rights advocates, and for all Americans distressed with the rise in teenage pregnancy, Barack Obama arrives just in the nick of time. We can now get back on track, pushing toward the common ground goals Americans seek, namely, the goal of preventing unwanted pregnancies.

To signal the seriousness with which Obama and the new Congress take this mission, last week, on the first day the Senate returned to session, Majority Leader Harry Reid introduced the Prevention First Act. This legislation is designed to increase access to both contraception and comprehensive sex education, as well as reduce unwanted pregnancies in the United States. On Tuesday, House Democrats Louise Slaughter and Diana Degette introduced it in the House.

This legislation will hopefully end the reckless Bush years which pushed ideology over tried and true methods to address the problem. If any further proof is needed of the Bush failure, some timely data is at hand. Indeed the Bush era ends with a couple of poetic, sad, but predictable footnotes. The CDC just released new data showing that teen birth rates rose in more than half the states in the country in 2006 hitting hardest the South-the region most loyal to Bush and his abstinence-only mission. (The pro-choice, comprehensive sex ed supporting Northeastern states had the lowest teen birth rates.) Another CDC study released days ago discovered STDs are on the rise also. Medical experts continually sounded the alarm during the Bush years, warning that the abstinence-only approach would sow the seeds of ignorance in teenagers. Those seeds are finally bearing fruit. In the South, where abstinence-only was promoted as the only safe way to avoid pregnancy and STDs, it has yielded bitter fruit.

When Bush took office he was handed the lowest unintended pregnancy and abortion rates in decades. During the Clinton years, a woman's right to make important life decisions, like when to become a mother, was respected. But at the behest of his fervent base, Bush discarded the policies that led to those universally desired results. Sex education was replaced with abstinence-only, which dismissed actual knowledge as a corrupting force, indeed, as an inducement to experiment. (Teens it turns out need no inducement on that score.) Bush filled contraceptive posts with anti-contraceptive ideologues. Instead of increasing access to contraception in order to prevent unwanted pregnancy, Bush's HHS tried to redefine contraception as abortion. Bush promised that we'd arrive at the same sought-after destination, reduced unwanted pregnancy. Now, at the end of this harrowing roadtrip we discover that in addition to gutting our 401Ks, he's knocked up our daughters and given them the clap.

Prevention First contains an array of remedies and undoes some of the damage to women's reproductive health. For example, one solution addresses the skyrocketing prices of birth control on college campuses. In his Federal Deficit Reduction Act of 2005, Bush removed college health centers from the discount drug pricing program causing birth control prices to escalate, in some cases by 900%. College-aged women are the demographic at greatest risk of unwanted pregnancy and have higher abortion rates than any other group. Prevention First puts college health centers back into the discounting program. It is a cost neutral way to improve contraceptive access for the group of women in greatest need of it.

In 2000, as the Bush reign was gearing up, fully half of all women of reproductive age -- 34 million women -- lacked contraceptive services and supplies. Half of those women could not afford to buy such care on their own and needed public support. Between 2000 and 2004, the number of U.S. women in need of publicly funded contraceptive services and supplies increased by 6%-more than one million women. That was when the economy was great. Now, things are exponentially worse. Americans are not only losing their jobs, but along with them, their health insurance and contraceptive coverage.

Prevention First expands the safety net by funding Title X, the nation's contraceptive program for the poor, at a level more appropriate to the swelling need. The program has been under-funded for years. Had Title X funding kept pace with medical inflation since FY 1980, it would now be funded at more than $725 million instead of the FY 2007 level of $283 million. Prevention First would fund Title X just under that--it requests a $700 million budget. As Congresswoman Slaughter explained when introducing the bill, ""For every dollar spent on family planning services, it is estimated that almost four dollars is saved in public health spending." Prevention First is sound fiscal policy as well as the right public health policy.

Over the last eight years the anti-choice movement has revealed its bold anti-contraception agenda and found a willing partner in the Bush administration. Anti-contraceptive operatives have fought every attempt to expand access to family planning. Each time contraceptive coverage legislation was introduced the anti-choice movement was there to beat it back. They shamelessly fought legislation to provide sexual assault victims with the ability to prevent a pregnancy as a result of the rape. They worked to confuse the public about the mode of action of contraceptive methods, claiming all hormonal methods of birth control can cause abortion. Through abstinence-only programs they denied sexually active teens information about contraception and filled their heads with inaccuracies and fears about the safety of condoms.

Prevention First would begin to undue these damages. It would ensure that contraceptives are included in all health plans that cover prescription drugs and that no matter what hospital a rape victim is brought to she can get emergency contraception to prevent pregnancy. It re-establishes science and medicine as the sources of policy, and in particular, on what contraception really is as well as its effectiveness. It will reestablish comprehensive sex education programs as the standard, those subjected to "rigorous scientific research" that show, quantitatively, to lower teen pregnancy and STD rates.

The anti-contraception forces, standing on the wreckage that has resulted from their policies, vow to continue obstructing and confusing. Upon the introduction of Prevention First in the Senate, the Family Research Council warned that the bill would "direct hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars to the abortion industry," "use taxpayer funds to mislead people about the potential of the "morning after pill" (known as Plan B) to act as an abortifacient," and "target teens' with "comprehensive" sex education; and spread emergency contraception." I say, if they oppose it, we're on the right track.

To keep up to date on progress with the Prevention First Act, access to contraception, and opposition activities visit www.birthcontrolwatch.org