For Women, the Ultimate in Preventive Health Care: Birth Control

This year we celebrate the approval, 50 years ago, of the birth control pill. The pill was the first modern contraceptive available to millions of women in the U.S. and around the world. Before the pill, women relied on just about anything to delay or prevent pregnancy -- from eating pomegranate seeds and papaya to drinking lead and mercury or even imbibing a potion of dried beaver testicles brewed in a strong alcohol solution.

There is no way to overstate the revolutionary impact of having a method of birth control that allowed women to plan their families. Maternal and infant health improved dramatically; the infant death rate plummeted; and women were able to fulfill increasingly diverse educational, political, professional, and social aspirations. Today, 100 million women are on the pill around the world. The number of women now exceeds the number of men currently in undergraduate schools and getting advanced degrees in the United States.

And all this is because they finally had a modern and effective method of limiting or planning their families. The Guttmacher Institute reports that the average American woman wants to have two children, and spends approximately five years conceiving and having them. She spends another thirty years of her life trying to prevent pregnancy.

So -- for women -- what could be more basic preventive care than birth control?

Yet, this question is now a critical topic of debate in the U.S. as the newly signed health care law begins to go into effect. A key question is what type of health care services for women will be considered essential preventive care -- and therefore made more affordable?

This is finally the moment to address a fundamental problem facing millions of American women: they need birth control, but for too many women it is not easily accessible or affordable.

Despite the approval of the pill 50 years ago, and the subsequent development of new and superior forms of contraception like the ring or the patch, half of all pregnancies in the U.S. are unplanned. Nearly one-quarter end in an abortion. Teen pregnancy in the US is higher than any other industrialized nation. So isn't it time we take this seriously -- not as a moral issue, but as a preventable health care issue?

Preventing unplanned pregnancy is good for women, good for their families -- and good for society. For decades, the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists have been making the argument that family planning is preventive care. These highly respected organizations see the everyday, firsthand benefits of safe and effective contraception and the risks to maternal and child health due to unintended pregnancies.

And, a brand new report from the Guttmacher Institute makes the public health and economic case that affordable contraception coverage is essential preventive care. It cites evidence from the Department of Health and Human Services' own Healthy People report -- which details our nation's public health goals -- describing "the importance of family planning services in terms of preventing the social, economic and medical costs of unintended pregnancy." The Guttmacher report goes on to note that "the federal government, the nation's largest employer, reported that it experienced no increase in costs at all after a 1998 law required coverage of contraceptives for federal employees. In fact, employers should benefit from improved coverage and use of contraception."

The need and desire to make affordable birth control available to all women is universally supported -- by men and women alike. A recent poll conducted for Planned Parenthood on the anniversary of the pill demonstrated this -- 79 percent of women believe family planning is preventive care, and 74 percent of women and men support it being covered at low or no cost by insurance plans.

In the coming months, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services will write the rules and regulations that will either include contraception as preventive care or not. Science, public health, and economics dictate that contraception is the most basic preventive health care women use -- and more of them would if it were affordable. It is time to finally make birth control not just a medical reality -- it is time to make it a practical reality for all women. Only then will we achieve our shared goal of reducing unintended pregnancies and giving women the ability to raise happy and healthy families.