05/27/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Legislation with Legs: The Prevention First Act

I found a lump in my breast two weeks ago. I didn't tell my family, because just saying the words seemed too hard, and I didn't want to scare them while I waited for the results. I did my best to keep busy on other issues instead. Thankfully, I had an issue in front of me that was big enough to handle the job. On the day I was scheduled to meet with my doctor, I spent the morning at the Ohio Statehouse lobbying for the Prevention First Bill. It was so inspiring to find myself in a room filled with strong and compassionate women, sharing stories of women's health issues, and all working together to ensure a better future for our daughters. It did much to take my mind away from my own worries.

The Prevention First Bill is Ohio legislation mirroring a current federal bill of the same name. The federal version was introduced in January by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Louise M. Slaughter (D-NY), and Diana DeGette (D-CO). The Ohio bill is on its fourth go round and finally building steam. It is being reintroduced to the house by Representative Tyrone Yates and sponsored for the senate by Senator Teresa Fedor.

These bills are so important because they promote accessible health care for women and comprehensive sex education for our youth (with abstinence education included as the foundation, by the way). If you ask me, it's the perfect compromise. It's the middle ground on the one issue where so many people believe there is no middle ground. Senator Reid noted "We can find not only common ground, but also common sense in our Prevention First Act." Representative Slaughter added that "for every dollar spent on family planning services, it is estimated that almost four dollars is saved in public health spending."

Dr. William E. May, Senior Fellow of the Culture of Life Foundation, spoke out against prevention, arguing that contraceptives do not prevent pregnancy: "The more contraception is available, the more abortions occur because contraception is the gateway to abortion." He went on to say "most abortions occur because men and women do not want to have a baby but nonetheless have sexual intercourse."

(Wow. Dear ol' Dr. May sounds like a really fun guy. I totally want to party with this dude.)

Congresswoman Slaughter's website retorts May's distorted claims by citing statistics from The Guttmacher Institute showing availability of emergency contraceptives account for a 43 percent decline in abortion procedures." I can personally attest to the fact that responsible contraceptive use has been a major player in the vitality and health of my own eighteen year marriage and the planning of my family and career, thank you very much.

Being involved in this lobby effort has made me so thankful to have good health insurance, and to have access to good medical advice. It reminded me of how important that privilege is, and of the many thousands of women who don't have access to quality healthcare or affordable contraceptives. Even with insurance, the co-pay amounts for my mammograms and follow up added up to over $600.00 in out of pocket expenses. That's no small chunk of change for anybody, especially in this economy.

As I worked with my lobby group I tried to imagine what it would feel like for a single mother with no health insurance and very little money to find a lump in her breast like I did, or to find out she might be pregnant, or facing some sort of gynecological illness. What might she feel when looking into the eyes of her children while holding that secret and trying to put on a positive face for her family? I empathized immensely, and felt more determined than ever to do whatever I could to help women gain access to comprehensive, affordable, health services.

While at the Statehouse, I joined a large group of women (and men -- bless their hearts) who met with legislators to discuss the bill and push for its passage. Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Connie Schultz offered the keynote speech. (I love Connie. If I could make a magic wish for a mentor, it would be her. She is on my A-List of pro-choice "she-ro's"). Just prior to giving her Keynote she received an e-mail from her editor at the Cleveland Plain Dealer saying "Isn't it sad that we still need to have pro choice events; it is the law after all."

Schultz went on to tell the packed audience 'Its up to us to make this happen, to change the conversation, to correct inaccurate statements made by the opposition, and to do so gently and with dignity." She gave a wonderfully inspiring speech on women's rights, telling stories of the suffragettes, making clear how lucky we are to have the right to vote and lobby for our needs today.

A short video clip from her speech is available here:

PPAO Legislative Director Gary Dougherty
with Columnist Connie Schultz

While we lobbied, I watched with glee as more and more legislators signed on as co-sponsors of the Ohio bill. It was so exciting to be part of the process. Of course there were other elected officials who were more hesitant. They said they would vote for it, but would do so quietly, stating concerns that coming forward as a leader and co-sponsoring the bill could create a firestorm in their districts that might do more harm than good. It is true that in divided districts, high profile support for anything pro-choice or pro-woman could threaten a politician's re-election. So I am proud of the members of the house and senate who demonstrated the courage to come forward. These are leaders who do not let their position in office take precedence over their positions on the issues, even when risk is involved. I do not condemn those who don't though. I would rather have a quiet yes vote than watch an anti-woman candidate use the issue to unseat a voting progressive. I do want strong outspoken leadership, but also understand the world of politics is nuanced in a thousand shades of gray, even though elections are painted for the public in the starkest forms of black and white.

After Connie Shultz gave her talk, the troops headed out for more meetings with their legislators. I had to duck out though, as it was time for my dreaded appointment with the doctor. I am jumping for joy to tell you, dear readers, all is well. The lump was benign. I do not have breast cancer.

While sitting in my OBGYN's exam room that afternoon, with my legs up in stirrups and sporting a lovely white paper gown, my doctor made small talk to keep me comfortable and relaxed for the Pap smear:

"So what did you do today?" she inquired.

"I was at the statehouse lobbying for the Ohio Prevention First Bill."

Her head popped up from behind the sheet like a prairie dog coming out of its hole.

"What's that?" She exclaimed with wide eyed excitement.

"It's a bill to provide comprehensive sex education and women's health care."

"Really? I'm very involved in politics with The Ohio Medical Board." She said. "As an OBGYN this is an issue I would be very interested in." She then she waved her hand in a gesture towards my exposed vagina, (as if making me aware of her work).

"I could e-mail you the information about it, if you like." I replied, using my most nuanced political language. I did not know for certain what her political views were, nor did I want to find out at that particular moment, while spread eagle with a scapula in the open position. I am about as politically active as they come, but hey, we all need to draw the line somewhere.

I did find it somewhat surprising that a doctor specializing in women's health who claims to be very "politically active" would be unaware of this legislation. So I called Planned Parenthood executive director Gary Dougherty and asked about it. Dougherty said "We have worked with, and provide information on this legislation to all the Ohio Medial Associations, especially the ones specializing in women's health and gynecology, and will step up our efforts to encourage them to forward this information to their membership. It is likely their groups don't know about the bill because they're waiting to see whether it has legs."

As for me, that's not good enough. This legislation needs to pass. If this bill doesn't have legs, then I am going to get out there and talk to people about it until it does, even if that means doing so while my own legs are up in stirrups.

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