12/18/2013 06:31 pm ET Updated Feb 17, 2014

History in the Making in Pennsylvania

Last week, the Women's Health Caucus of the Pennsylvania legislature announced the first phase of a comprehensive Agenda for Women's Health. It is a groundbreaking approach to addressing the unique health needs and concerns of women that could serve as a model for other states who seek to improve the lives of women.

Historically, Pennsylvania legislature has spent unprecedented time and energy on creating barriers to contraception and abortion, rather than enacting legislation that would improve the health of women, including, ironically, pregnant women and nursing mothers. But the Women's Health Caucus, a bipartisan, bicameral caucus of the Pennsylvania General Assembly, led by Representative Dan Frankel and Senators Judy Schwank and Chuck McIlhinney, made history last week. They took a proactive, positive approach by addressing a wide range of legal and policy barriers to women's health and equality, and in recognizing that women's reproductive rights and reproductive health are the keystone.

The agenda is not born of ideology, but reflects the very real struggles of real women and families throughout Pennsylvania. The first phase of the agenda is seven pieces of legislation, including protecting pregnant women in the workplace, filling gaps in protection for nursing mothers at work, ensuring unimpeded and safe access to women's health centers, strengthening the equal pay law and prohibiting wage secrecy, extending health screenings to more women, stopping intimate partner harassment, and ensuring that domestic violence victims are not punished for contacting law enforcement.

One of the key pieces of legislation is a 15-foot buffer zone to protect women's clinics. The prime sponsor of this bill is a former clinic escort who has seen first-hand the violence and harassment that women seeking abortion at these clinics experience.

This unprecedented focus on improving the condition of women's lives comes on the heels of Pennsylvania's "C-" grade on women's issues given by the Center for American Progress, putting it 28th out of the 50 states in the treatment of women. We say "given" because those of us who toil in these fields know that the C- grade was generous.

It would be tempting for advocates of women's rights and equality to fall back to the defensive posture we so often find ourselves in or to just be outraged that we need legislation to address matters as basic as permitting a pregnant woman to take a bathroom break or carry a bottle of water. But this positive vision presents an opportunity to make things better for the women of Pennsylvania, who encounter numerous barriers to good health and full equality. And it's something we can do right now.

The Pennsylvania Agenda for Women's Health offers an opportunity for real improvement in the lives of the state's most important resource -- women. And we need to be mindful that this is only the first phase of an aggressive campaign needed to improve the health and well-being of women in Pennsylvania.

Kate Michelman is co-chair of WomenVote PA, an initiative of the Women's Law Project that educates, engages, and mobilizes Pennsylvanians to make equality a reality for women. She is also president emerita of NARAL Pro-Choice America and author of "With Liberty and Justice for All: A Life Spent Protecting the Right to Choose."

Co-authored with Carol Tracy, who is the Executive Director of the Women's Law Project and co-chair of its WomenVote PA initiative.