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Destiny Lopez

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International Women's Day and Latina's health

Posted: 03/ 8/2012 2:04 pm

Today is International Women's Day, a day to focus on the great strides women have made both socially and economically. Women's health and rights worldwide have greatly advanced in the past century, yet lately, there are an increasing number of examples of that success slipping away.

Just last month in Honduras, the Supreme Court upheld a decision outlawing emergency contraception. Any woman or doctor found using or distributing the "morning-after" pill in that country could face criminal prosecution and jail time. The law incorrectly associates emergency contraception with abortion, which is barred except in life-threatening cases, and even then is legally restricted. As the name indicates, emergency contraception is not abortion. It is a form of contraception. This latest ruling in Honduras reflects a larger global trend of opponents of legal abortion now going after birth control.

If that sounds familiar, it should. This messaging is an American export. The global debate echoes the current opposition to accessible birth control in the U.S. The Obama administration's decision to require coverage of birth control without co-pays under the Affordable Care Act has revealed the extreme positions held by some members of Congress. The same people who oppose legal abortion would like to bar women's access to the most effective means of preventing unintended pregnancy and abortion. And these same opponents of birth control coverage for American women want to slash U.S. foreign aid for international family planning programs.

Those of us who work in public health know firsthand the consequences of denying women access to birth control. The picture is grim.

There are 215 million women worldwide who want to plan or space their births but lack access to modern contraception. Virtually all of these women live in developing countries, where pregnancy poses potential health hazards. When women can't access birth control, they experience high rates of unintended pregnancy, which lead to high rates of unsafe abortion, pregnancy complications, and maternal and infant deaths.
Young, poor, undereducated, and rural women throughout Latin America often have the most difficulty obtaining the services they need to plan healthy pregnancies and deliveries. They often have fewer options, have to travel father to get them, and may delay or forego the health services they vitally need.

The benefits of investing in the health of women and their newborns lead to substantially fewer unintended pregnancies and dramatic reductions in maternal and infant deaths. Evidence shows that fewer women die from pregnancy-related causes in countries with strong, publicly funded family planning programs.

Here in the U.S., we are lucky to live in a country with some public support for family planning. The majority of women who need it have access to modern contraception. But half of all pregnancies in this country are unintended, and the U.S. has the highest rate of teen pregnancy in the developed world. We, too, still have a long way to go, especially Latinas, who face glaring health disparities.

Latinas have the highest teen pregnancy rates and teen birth rates of any racial or ethnic group -- about twice the national average. We are more likely to be diagnosed with cervical cancer than women in any other racial or ethnic group, and contract HIV at nearly three times the rate of non-Latino whites. Last year, 37 percent of Latinas were uninsured, more than the women of any other racial or ethnic group.

The president's recent budget request to Congress protects funding for family planning programs at home and abroad. But it's up to Congress to approve these requests in the final budget. They should not balance the budget on women's backs. Women deserve access to contraceptives and quality health care no matter where they live.

Let's urge lawmakers to protect access and funding for family planning services for all women. Politics should not stand in the way of women's access to family planning. Investing in women's health leads to a healthier, more prosperous society -- this is the legacy we should be exporting. On International Women's Day, let's celebrate our success, not try to dismantle it.

Destiny Lopez is the director of Latino engagement for Planned Parenthood Federation of America.