President Barack Obama's increasing access for millions of women to birth control, breast pumps, HIV tests and five categories of preventive services without co-payments or other out-of-pocket insurance charges has softened the blow of cuts to women's services that we are witnessing in California and in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives in Congress. These cuts are eviscerating essential services and devastating critical support on which millions of Americans rely.
The biggest casualty in this affront is women's health programs.
At the national level, Republican cuts couldn't come at a worse time for women. In the past 20 years, America has doubled its maternal mortality rate. Last year, we ranked 41st in maternal mortality, the lowest among rich countries.
Despite this, Republicans call for deficit reduction deals that would substantially cut Medicaid as well as Medicare and Social Security, and have a disproportionate impact on the health and economic security of women nationwide. Cuts to Medicare and Medicaid will be debilitating to women and families who rely on these programs to afford preventive and reproductive health services. This is no time to gouge a gaping hole in social safety nets that protect these communities from falling into poverty and poor health.
This is not the first time Republicans have demonstrated an interest in targeting women. During the budget debate earlier this spring, Republicans threatened a government shutdown unless Planned Parenthood was banned from receiving Title X funding (for women's health services) in the final 2011 government spending bill.
This flies in the face of their earlier party leadership. President George H.W. Bush, when proposing Title X in his previous role as a congressman, said, "We need to make population and family planning household words. ... If family planning is anything, it is a public health matter."
If Republicans were listening to their leaders, they would be proposing an expansion of this critical program, not attacking it. Title X funds provide an array of confidential preventive health services. In 2009 alone, Americans received 2.2 million Pap tests, more than 2.3 million breast exams and 6.9 million sexually transmitted disease tests. Title X saves taxpayers at least $3.4 billion in health care costs annually, according to Guttmacher Institute estimates.
California's cuts are equally egregious. California's budget crisis resulted in cuts to the overall support structure for poor and marginalized communities everywhere. California eliminated state general funds for maternal and child health, and many local governments have done the same. Meanwhile, access to health care in California continues to worsen for women as disease rates increase.
For decades, reproductive, maternity and preventive health programs for women across the nation have been underfunded, reduced and eviscerated in the name of budget balancing. To say we do not have the money to protect the health or safety of women is fallacious and disingenuous.
We could save billions of dollars without touching one penny devoted to women's and girls' health. We could reduce the $450 million we're spending every day in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. We could reap $20 billion in annual savings by closing the tax loophole for hedge fund managers. We could rake in $40 billion in annual savings by ending giveaways to the oil, gas and coal industry.
We could and we should. We know that prevention pays, and that is particularly apparent with women's health. It is time to defend women and girls with the same ferocity with which others protect the rich. We better do so quickly before our maternal mortality rate gets worse.