On Thursday morning, Representatives Nancy Johnson (R-Calif.) and Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) in conjunction with the Congressional Caucus for Women’s Issues, co-chaired a congressional hearing on women’s access to contraceptive technology. At the hearing, members of Congress urged support for legislation which would require insurance companies to include contraceptives among prescription drugs already covered. The hearing began with opening statements from Johnson and Norton focusing on obstacles to the development and use of contraception.
Panelists Dr. Paula Adams Hillard, OB-GYN, a professor in the Dept. of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the University of Cincinnati and Dr. Elizabeth Karlin, Director of the Women_s Medical Center in Madison, Wis., provided testimony on the many forces that can limit access to effective contraception. Among the obstacles to contraceptive use cited by panelists was the cost of birth control methods, ineffective contraception, misinformation on the dangers of contraceptives, lack of insurance coverage, lack of provider training in contraception and the lack of contraceptive research and development.
Karlin said doctors often contribute to this culture and its consequences. She stressed the importance of contraceptive education in medical schools, since most medical schools teach nothing about contraception, and rely on outside pharmaceutical companies to train ob/gyn students. Doctors’ ignorance and unwillingness to educate themselves and their patients about contraceptives was made very clear as Dr. Karlin told of tragedies created by misinformation given by untrained physicians.
She described one of her patients, an 18-year-old who had been on Depo-Provera for a year. When she missed an injection and became pregnant, she told Karlin that her doctor told her Depo-Provera prevented pregnancy for two years after one injection. Another woman told Karlin that her doctor refused to sterilize her when her first pregnancy caused a stroke. When she began taking birth control pills, she developed pre-stroke symptoms and had to stop taking them. Pregnant for the second time and at great risk, she asked her doctor about abortion. He refused to either perform one or refer her to another physician.
Other witnesses such as Dr. Florence Haseltine, director of the Center for Population Research, and Roderick Mackenzie, CEO of Gynetics, Inc., testified that family planning is much cheaper than the costs of unintended pregnancies, and that the U.S. has by far the highest rates of unwanted pregnancies and STDs among any industrialized nation. Women are sterilized twice as often as men, and men usually only get vasectomies at their wife’s urging. One witness asked why men were not taking more responsibility for birth control. She said that although there have been two huge men’s marches in D.C. in the past couple of years, she wondered why they did not discuss “which kind of condom is more comfortable” or “which is better, scalpel or no-scalpel vasectomy.” “Lara,” a graduate student, testified that every form of birth control she had ever used caused her serious health problems, and called for more contraceptive research.
Congresswomen at the hearing agreed with the panelists, and reaffirmed their commitment to making contraception a part of basic health insurance and health care, given that almost everyone in the country will need birth control at some point in his or her life.