Sexual health is a big issue. The United States has come a long way in the past few years in giving women more rights and better education than ever before. And even when the federal government makes things a little more difficult (it does still happen), forces at the local level are working hard to keep good health care affordable.
But that doesn’t mean there aren’t setbacks. Recently, ultra-conservative lawmakers in Oklahoma decided that a woman does not know more than a state legislature about her reproductive health or family planning. A new law, which was brought into being by overturning the governor’s veto, would allow doctors to lie to patients if the child had a birth defect and the doctor feared abortion would be considered.
An important distinction is that the law doesn’t actually encourage doctors to lie to their patients. It just provides a legal defense if they decide not to immediately tell a mother about her child’s birth defect if they think such information could result in the mother choosing abortion. But a doctor is not allowed (at least in the literal sense of the law) to claim that the child is perfectly healthy. It’s not as bad as it could be, but it’s still just wrong.
But we must remember that this is not an abortion issue, no matter how much people want to make it one. It is an issue of doctor-patient trust, and how this law makes it legal to violate that for a political opinion. That is the truly disgusting part of the law. It provides a legal defense not only for a doctor to violate the hippocratic oath (remember “do no harm”?), but provides an incentive for them to bring moral judgements into their treatment of patients.
In the frenzy to prevent abortion, Oklahoma law-makers have disregarded a woman’s right to accurate medical information and have been completely anti-family. What will the state say when children are being born who were supposed to be perfectly healthy suffer from Downs Syndrome or Tay Sachs? What kind of mental and spiritual preparation could the family have done if they would have known they were having a special needs child? Denying such important information — and time for a family to prepare for any type of situation they will face — shows a blatant disregard for the family.
Even though this law has just been passed, many women’s rights advocates have hope that this law will go the way of many others that have infringed upon a woman’s choice about her own health care. While this law is the symptom of a small but disturbing segment of the political population, there is hope (even in Oklahoma) for reproductive rights.
In August 2009, an Oklahoma law requiring physicians to perform ultrasounds before performing an abortion was struck down as unconstitutional. The law mandated that a woman must watch the ultrasound and have the fetus described to her before she would be able to elect to have an abortion. Cases of rape or incest were not exempt from the law.
Besides being abhorrent in those rare cases of rape or incest (imagine the psychological damage that would cause), the law fundamentally infringed on a patient’s right to have private care from her doctor. In addition, it assumed that a state legislature would have better knowledge of an individual’s medical situation than a doctor and his or her medical judgment.
State judges are the first line of defense against unconstitutional and discriminatory sexual politics. By not allowing legislatures to enter into the relationship between a patient and doctor for medical decisions, Oklahoma took an important step in the right direction last year. Only time will tell whether they will make the same decision again.
Ignorance isn’t bliss
But before a woman has to make such an important choice with her physician, there is time to educate. During the Bush years, high school age women were denied comprehensive sexual education if their school wanted to receive federal funding. In May 2009, President Obama not only got rid of mandatory Title V Abstinence Education, but put almost $164 million toward teen pregnancy prevention initiatives.
Ironically, many anti-abortion advocates were against the change. They believe that comprehensive sexual education encourages teens to have sex, but studies have shown that the type of sexual education that high schoolers — and tomorrow’s college students — receive has no effect on the amount of sex people have, just the amount of pregnancies that result.
Comprehensive sexual education has been linked not only to lower incidences of teen pregnancy, but also lower rates of STI transmission. By educating high school students today, we are preparing the college campuses of next year with students who not only know their sexual options but also make more informed decisions about their sex lives.
Purple and the Pill
And even Northwestern is helping. In 2007, a federal bill meant to decrease the cost of Medicaid actually increased health care costs to college women: it made birth control up to four times as expensive on college campuses. The national campus average cost of one month of birth control is about $40, up from about $13 four years ago. That means that college-age women are paying about $324 more for birth control each year.
Here is where we have to look to the local level to see that we’re still moving in the right direction. Although things have changed on a national level, grassroots efforts to keep reproductive choices in the hands of individuals are working. You don’t have to look any farther than Emerson Street.
The Searle pharmacy is beating the national average. A four-week supply of birth control is $19 (without university insurance) and slightly less if you’re on the student insurance plan offered through the university. Although these prices are slightly higher than they were before the new federal laws went into effect, the university has maintained its commitment to offering competitively priced medical care to students.
Here’s to hoping
The newest law in Oklahoma is something women should worry about. And not just women in the Sooner State. Because these laws are passed by state legislatures, such things could happen anywhere. But the good news is that the national climate is moving toward one in which women can make their own decisions about their health, sexual or otherwise.
By supporting local, state and federal initiatives that increase education and individual accountability for sexual health, the government is creating a safer sexual environment for today’s and tomorrow’s college students. In the cases where they aren’t, we simply have to keep fighting for our right to control our own bodies and choices. A few steps forward and one step back isn’t perfect, but it’s progress.