Editorial: Common sense on women’s health
Remember when state and national politics were full of talk about the “war on women”? At the New Hampshire State House, at least, a truce has been called. The results of the 2013 legislative session and new state budget show the real difference that a single election can make.
Consider what was in the news during 2011 and 2012: State financing for family planning and women’s health programs was chopped 65 percent in the last state budget. And state legislators put into law New Hampshire’s first-ever restrictions on access to an abortion – over the vetoes of then-Gov. John Lynch – creating a parental notification requirement for young women and instituting a ban on so-called “partial birth” abortions.
There were also attempts to defund Planned Parenthood, a major provider of free low-cost health care in New Hampshire; to institute a range of other abortion restrictions, including a 24-hour waiting period and a ban on abortions after 20 weeks; and to allow employers to opt out of contraceptive coverage for the health insurance plans offered to their workers.
Jennifer Frizzell, the senior policy adviser for Planned Parenthood of Northern New England, rightly characterizes that two-year period as a time when ideology trumped good policy. And after the November election, many of those advocating such changes lost their seats or their leadership positions in the Legislature.
This year, the mood at the State House and the resulting legislation was decidedly different.
Most dramatically, much of the money for family planning and health-screening services for the poor was restored. The last two-year budget allowed $410,000 and $344,000 for such programs; the new budget spends $895,000 per year.
Additionally, legislators approved an expanded Medicaid family planning benefit. This means that women (and men too) who are needy – but not poor enough to qualify for traditional Medicaid services – will now have access to a range of preventive health services including annual wellness visits, cancer screenings, breast exams, testing and treatment for sexually-transmitted infections, access to birth control and health counseling.
And, quietly but significantly, the state this year finally stopped accepting federal money for misleading and potentially dangerous “abstinence-only” sex education programs. In recent years, New Hampshire had stopped providing matching money necessary to access the federal dollars – but it made the money available for organizations interested in matching the money themselves. As a result, private organizations had the state’s blessing to continue such programs. One new argument that held sway among lawmakers who finally pulled the plug: Such programs stigmatize gay teens by teaching that the only acceptable sexual activity is between one man and one woman in the context of marriage. In a state that has pioneered gay marriage, such a message was surely an anachronism – and at odds with the spirit of state law. In the new state budget, abstinence-only programs are gone.
It’s too soon to tell whether the common sense that prevailed at the State House is the new normal or just another dramatic swing of New Hampshire’s jarring political pendulum. Indeed, just last week, opponents of Planned Parenthood opened up a new line of attack, questioning the state Department of Health and Human Services about one of its employees who was formerly an official with Planned Parenthood – as if to imply that advocating for women’s rights would somehow disqualify someone from a job with the state. And you don’t have to look too far to see troubling trends elsewhere in the country, where state legislators are advocating a range of new restrictions on abortion and other issues of reproductive health, often in a voluminous way.
There’s no evidence that this sort of effort is what most voters want, especially in New Hampshire. The new course set by the 2013 Legislature is clearly the right course.