In an effort -- as of last week unsuccessful -- to generate more Republican support for the economic recovery package, President Obama has conceded a provision that would have made it easier for states to extend Medicaid coverage for family planning services to low-income families. Yet, just week prior, on the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, he issued a stirring statement that proclaimed:
".....(W)e are united in our determination to prevent unintended pregnancies, reduce the need for abortion, and support women and families in the choices they make. To accomplish these goals, we must work to find common ground to expand access to affordable contraception, accurate health information, and preventative services."
Why, within days, has President Obama violated his own pledge?
Part of the answer is that our country's approach to economic policy simply ignores meaningful connections between the issues we face in our everyday lives. Because we allow abortion to be debated solely on ideological grounds, we repeatedly ignore the real-life connection between women's reproductive health and their economic security. How else could it go unnoticed that as more and more women lose their jobs, their economic well-being will be further jeopardized by limiting their access to contraception (through Medicaid or through private insurance), thus increasing their chances of an unintended pregnancy?
Making this connection visible would make it much harder for Representative John Boehner, the Republic House leader, to declaim, "How can you spend hundreds of millions of dollars on contraceptives? How does that stimulate the economy?"
A second part of the answer is that we still do not consider women's economic participation vital to our nation's economic advancement. Witness the lack of concern for the absence of decent-paying jobs for women in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Plan. How can this be when women account for nearly 70 percent of minimum-wage and below-minimum-wage workers, and when most poor Americans are women and children? Why do we not take action to realize the potential economic contributions of half our population as we prepare to spend billions of dollars to stimulate the economy and lay the groundwork for long-term economic growth?
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi responded to criticism of the Medicaid family planning expansion by stating that it would "reduce cost." This is absolutely true. In 2007, the Congressional Budget office found that such a measure would save the federal government $200 million over five years by giving women the option to prevent unwanted pregnancies that would result in Medicaid-funded births.
But what Speaker Pelosi -- and President Obama -- didn't do, and must do, is make the connection that women's health is fundamental to our country's economic health. If we don't work quickly to ensure the economic security of women, particularly low-income women and women of color -- by increasing their access to contraception, decent-paying jobs with benefits, and quality and affordable child care -- our nation will forego the full benefit of their economic contributions now and in the future. Surely we can agree that this would be an enormous step backward in our quest for economic "recovery."