Next Great Debate: Free Birth Control?

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With the election season coming to an end this week, the next great debate is on the horizon -- birth control, specifically whether to offer birth control free to women.

A panel of experts advising the government is scheduled to hold its first meeting on November 16th to begin considering what kind of preventive care for women should be covered at no cost, as required under President Obama's health care overhaul.

The experts will have to debate what the definition of "preventive care" is. Sen. Barbara Mikulski, who wrote the women's health amendment, said the intent was to include family planning.

But then the next question is: Is birth control preventive medicine? Many medical and public health experts say yes.

"There is clear and incontrovertible evidence that family planning saves lives and improves health," said obstetrician-gynecologist Dr. David Grimes, an international family planning expert who teaches medicine at the University of North Carolina. "Contraception rivals immunization in dollars saved for every dollar invested. Spacing out children allows for optimal pregnancies and optimal child rearing. Contraception is a prototype of preventive medicine."

Religious leaders disagree, however.

"We don't consider it to be health care, but a lifestyle choice," said John Haas, president of the National Catholic Bioethics Center, a Philadelphia think tank whose work reflects church teachings. "We think there are other ways to avoid having children than by ingesting chemicals paid for by health insurance."

Most religious conservatives have stayed out of the debate. But if the morning-after pill is included in any way, they will certainly speak up, because they consider such medication to be a form of abortion.

While the use of birth control is widespread, about half of all pregnancies are still unplanned. Many of those pregnancies occur while women are using birth control. The government says the problem is rarely the method, but "inconsistent or incorrect use."

Advocates say free birth control would begin to address that problem.

"We can look at other countries where birth control is available for no cost, and what we see are lower pregnancy rates, lower abortion rates and lower teen pregnancy," said Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards.


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