Democrats Move to Repeal the Hyde Amendment

A law that once had widespread bipartisan support in Congress is now being challenged by some Democrats, including presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. It’s called the Hyde Amendment, and it prohibits federal funding of abortion except in cases of rape or incest, and cases where a woman’s life is in danger.

The Hyde Amendment is a legislative provision that was originally approved in 1967, and has been renewed annually ever since. It was designed to prevent taxpayers who oppose abortion from having to subsidize it. Because the Hyde Amendment prohibits Medicaid-funded abortions, however, opponents of the law argue that it unfairly discriminates against low-income women.

“Access to abortion shouldn’t depend on your zip code, and it shouldn’t depend on your pocketbook,” said Nancy Northrop, president of the Center for Reproductive Rights in a statement.

In fact, the bill was aimed at low-income women from the start. Henry Hyde, the Republican Congressman from Illinois who first sponsored the amendment, acknowledged that he would prefer to prohibit abortion altogether, but could only realistically expect to ban abortions funded by Medicaid. In a statement to Congress in 1977, Hyde said the following:

“I certainly would like to prevent, if I could legally, anybody having an abortion, a rich woman, a middle-class woman or a poor woman. Unfortunately, the only vehicle available is the [Medicaid] bill.”

This sentiment is especially troubling when you consider that roughly half of all the women who had abortions in 2014 were living below the federal poverty line. This suggests that thousands more women have been forced to carry unintended pregnancies to term simply because they couldn’t afford to have an abortion.

The Democrats who are calling for the repeal of the Hyde Amendment acknowledge that their efforts will probably take a while to gain traction in Congress. In spite of the challenges ahead, they remain committed to eliminating the restrictive legislation that specifically targets disadvantaged women.

ACOG Makes Case for Postpartum Long Acting Birth Control

Earlier this week, the American College of Obstetrics & Gynecology (ACOG) published a recommendation that hospitals should begin offering all women access to long acting reversible contraceptive (LARC) options immediately after giving birth. Currently, many physicians wait to discuss birth control options with new mothers until they return for their postpartum follow-up visit. Unfortunately, this approach can present a number of issues.

To begin with, the ACOG estimates that up to 40 percent of women miss their postpartum follow-up appointments. In other cases, women may lose insurance between the time they give birth and the time of their follow-up appointment. By counseling women on birth control options before their discharged after giving birth, these barriers could be eliminated, at least in part.

The ACOG advises that long term birth control options such as implants and IUDs are the most effective ways to prevent short-interval pregnancies (pregnancies that occur within 1 year of delivery). Short-interval pregnancies are associated with a higher risk of preterm birth and neonatal complications. Furthermore, the ACOG estimates that at least 70 percent of short-interval pregnancies are unintended.

Although IUD expulsion rates are higher in cases of immediate postpartum insertion, the authors of the ACOG’s recommendation write that “the advantages of immediate placement outweigh the disadvantages.” The authors also encourage obstetricians to “advocate for appropriate reimbursement for immediate postpartum LARC insertion,” so that it doesn’t place an undue financial burden on new mothers.

In the past, many insurance companies failed to cover the cost of providing contraception during hospital stays following labor and delivery. Recently, however, that’s begun to change. Today Medicaid, which pays for approximately half of all births in the U.S., covers long acting contraceptives after delivery in at least 20 states.

New York Finally Repeals Tax on Tampons

Starting on September 1, 2016, women in New York will no longer have to contend with a sexist tax on feminine hygiene products like tampons, sanitary napkins and panty liners. This tax on feminine products has been in effect since New York first adopted a sales tax in 1965. Other products such as condoms and Rogaine, were notably exempt from the tax. Politicians and women’s rights advocates in New York are hailing the elimination of the tax as a long-overdue step in the right direction.

“This is a regressive tax on essential products that women have had to pay for far too long and lifting it is a matter of social and economic justice,” said Governor Andrew Cuomo in a press release.

Just a week before Governor Cuomo signed the legislation to repeal the tampon tax, New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio signed a bill that will provide free tampons and pads to public schools, homeless shelters and jails throughout the city.

At the beginning of this year, 40 states had taxes on menstrual products. Since then, 15 states have introduced legislation or sparked legislative debates that aim to eliminate these taxes. It’s a key component of a nationwide push to destigmatize menstruation and eliminate barriers to feminine products.

In the words of State Assembly Member Linda B. Rosenthal, “The signing of this bill into law represents a new dawn. Women statewide will no longer be burdened by a lingering tax that was levied at a time when women were not part of government and the decision-making process.”

Hopefully more states will follow suit and pass legislation to repeal their own taxes on feminine products sooner, rather than later.

Zika Bill Cuts Funding for Contraception

Since an outbreak of the Zika virus struck Brazil in early 2015, governments throughout the Western Hemisphere have begun developing response plans and allotting funds to combat the virus’s spread. Because Zika poses the greatest threat to pregnant women, health officials have advised legislators that funding for reproductive health services must be a key component of these response plans.

Earlier this year, the Obama administration requested $1.9 billion in funding to fight the spread of Zika in the U.S. In late June, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a funding proposal drafted by members of the GOP that allotted just $1.1 billion toward efforts to fight the virus. In addition to cutting funding for contraception distribution, the proposal also prevents family planning organizations like Planned Parenthood from participating in the response.

Democrats in Congress have roundly criticized the cuts, particularly the elimination of $287 million for family planning and contraception, and an additional $101 million that was cut from teen pregnancy prevention programs. Instead of focusing on contraception and family planning, the GOP’s proposal devotes almost all of its funding toward mosquito control programs, vaccines and diagnostics. Prior to the House of Representatives’ vote on the proposal, the White House released a scathing critique of the bill as well.

“The plan from congressional Republicans is four months late and nearly a billion dollars short of what our public health experts have said is necessary to do everything possible to fight the Zika virus, and steals funding from other health priorities,” said White House press secretary Josh Earnest in a statement.

The funding cuts are an unfortunate – and all-too-familiar – case of partisan politics taking priority over women’s health. Short of a full-blown public health crisis, it’s unclear what it will take for members of the GOP to address reproductive health issues in a realistic and reasonable manner.

House Passes Controversial Conscience Protection Act

Yesterday the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill in a party-line vote that has serious implications for women seeking abortions. The bill, called the Conscience Protection Act, is a TRAP (Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers) law. These laws are designed to deliberately limit women’s access to abortions.

The Conscience Protection Act was drafted by Republic members of the House in 2014 after California mandated coverage for elective abortions under the Affordable Care Act. If it were to become law, the bill would allow health providers to refuse to provide or cover abortions without risking penalties. This includes physicians, insurance agents and even people in low-level administrative positions. Currently, health providers in states such as California can face financial penalties if they refuse to participate in abortion services.

House Republicans have argued that the bill is designed to protect health providers’ “freedom of conscience,” while seeming to ignore the fact that this could easily come at the expensive of women’s own reproductive freedom and health.

Many of the representatives opposed to the bill see it as a transparent political ploy to gain additional support from the religious right for the Republican candidate in this year’s presidential election. The bill is unlikely to gain support in the Senate, and even if it were to pass it would almost certainly face a presidential veto. That said, it’s disturbing that House Republicans are willing to put millions of women’s health in jeopardy for the sake of scoring quick political points with a niche voter demographic.

Activists Use Drone to Fly Abortion Pills to Northern Ireland

For the last several months, legislators in Northern Ireland have been engaged in a heated debate regarding one of the harshest anti-abortion laws in Europe. Under the current law, women in Northern Ireland can face up to 14 years in prison for receiving abortions. The law is so strict that the United Nations recently declared it a human rights violation.

Reproductive rights advocates in Northern Ireland and elsewhere in Europe feel that a repeal of the law is long overdue. Now, in an effort to demonstrate just how difficult it is for women in Northern Ireland to access abortions, activists in the neighboring Republic of Ireland have begun flying abortion pills over the border with a drone. Activists in Germany undertook a similar protest last June in which they used a drone to fly abortion pills to Poland – a country with similarly draconian abortion laws.

Upon being delivered to Northern Ireland, other non-pregnant abortion rights activists are taking the initial doses of Mifeprex to demonstrate that abortion pills are safe for women. The activists who organized the demonstration are calling it “an all-island act of solidarity between women in the north and the south to highlight the violation of human rights caused by the existing laws that criminalize abortion in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland except in very limited circumstances.”

While abortions are criminalized in both countries, it is not technically illegal for the protestors to transport the abortion pills across the border via drone. Following the initial flight of the drone on June 21, the activists lead a protest in front of the Court of Appeals in the capital city of Belfast.

In spite of mounting pressure both at home and abroad, Ireland’s Health Minister has maintained that the country’s government will not conduct a referendum until a citizen’s assembly is established to further examine the issue.

Women Can Now Use Apps to Obtain Birth Control

Not long ago, getting a prescription for hormonal birth control could be a time-consuming, stressful process for many women. Now, according to the New York Times, there are at least six digital ventures, including one from Planned Parenthood, that provide prescription contraceptives without requiring a visit to a doctor.

Instead, women can simply sign up for an app, provide some basic information about their health, and then receive a prescription from a clinician for the birth control of their choice. In some cases, they can also be counseled by a doctor via text or video chat. All of these apps offer prescriptions for birth control pills, and some also provide prescriptions for patches, rings and morning-after pills. Some apps such as Nurx are able to accept insurance, while others charge a modest fee for contraceptive prescriptions.

For women with prohibitively busy schedules, these apps can make contraceptive options far more accessible. Because clinicians still write the prescriptions, the apps don’t have to receive legislative approval to operate. In essence, they act as intermediaries between patients and clinicians. To maintain legal compliance, the apps’ proprietors must simply follow the telemedicine regulations of the states in which they operate and prescribe only in states where their clinicians are licensed. Likewise, they have the potential to reach women who might not otherwise seek birth control from a doctor’s office.

In an attempt to avoid public controversy, many of the apps have restrictions that are actually stricter than what is medically required. Prjkt Ruby, for example, requires users to be at least the age of consent for sexual activity in the state in which they live. Other apps such as Lemonaid have additional safety restrictions on what types of birth control can be prescribed to women over the age of 34.

Many healthcare officials are enthusiastic about the potential of these apps to provide women with improved access to birth control, but they’re careful to point out that women should still receive regular health examinations from their doctors as well.

CDC Finds Teens are Having Less Sex, Using More Birth Control

Teenagers might not be known for their stellar decision making skills, but according to a recent report from the Centers for Disease Control, America’s teenagers are exercising more caution than ever when it comes to sex and contraception.

Every two years, the CDC releases a comprehensive report that monitors common health-risk behaviors that contribute to the leading causes of death and disability among teenagers. These include drug and alcohol use, dietary behaviors and sexual activity. While 2015’s report wasn’t all rainbows and sunshine, it did have some very encouraging news about the sexual health of America’s teenagers.

To begin with, the number of sexually active teenagers in America is at an all-time low. In fact, only about 40 percent of teens surveyed reported that they had ever had sex. Furthermore, only about 30 percent of teens reported that they were currently (within the past three months) sexually active.

But teens aren’t just having less sex. When they do choose to have sex, they’re being more careful about using birth control as well. In just four years, the number of teens who responded “yes” when asked whether they use some form of birth control increased by 15 percent! Rather than relying exclusively on condoms, teens in 2015 were also more likely to use more reliable forms of hormonal birth control. Condom use actually declined slightly from previous years, but more teens reported using long-lasting alternatives such as IUDs, pills and injections.

All this data suggests that sex education in America’s schools is doing exactly what it’s supposed to do. Whereas abstinence-only education left teens woefully unprepared to deal with the realities of human sexuality, modern programs are demystifying sex and teaching teens how to engage in sexual activity safely and responsibly.

The UN Declares Irish Abortion Law a Human Rights Violation

In Ireland, a woman can face up to 14 years in prison for receiving an abortion except in cases where her own life is threatened by complications. This law was established in 1986 by an amendment to the Irish Constitution. In recent years it was received widespread criticism, both in Ireland and among the international community. A poll conducted in January, 2016 found that 78 percent of people in Ireland are in favor of changing the country’s abortion legislation. Along with a handful of other countries like Lichtenstein, Malta and Poland, Ireland has one of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe.

Now, after reviewing a case in which an Irish woman was forced to travel to Britain to end a pregnancy while carrying a terminally-ill fetus, the United Nations has ruled that the law represents a violation of human rights.

In their ruling released on June 9, The UN Human Rights Committee declared that the woman “was subject to discrimination and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment as a result of Ireland’s legal prohibition of abortion.” They further recommended Ireland “amend its law on voluntary termination of pregnancy,” and amend its Constitution if necessary.

In the words of the Committee, the woman was effectively forced to choose “between continuing her non-viable pregnancy or traveling to another country while carrying a dying fetus, at personal expense and separated from the support of her family, and to return while not fully recovered.”

Reproductive rights advocates in Ireland are hopeful that the UN ruling will put additional pressure on the Irish Government to repeal the long-standing ban on abortion. Soon after it was released, Ireland’s Health Minister described the ruling as “deeply unsettling,” but maintained that the Government would not conduct a referendum until a citizens’ assembly is established to further examine the issue.

“Smart Tampons” Could Help Detect Reproductive Health Issues

Part of the reason conditions like cervical cancer and endometriosis are difficult to treat is because it’s not always easy for women to identify symptoms between annual exams. The longer it takes to notice these conditions, the harder they are to treat. If health issues are asymptomatic, it may take months or even years for a physician to diagnose them.

That’s why the founders of the startup NextGen Jane want to provide women with a tool to monitor their reproductive health regularly from the comfort of their own homes. Ridhi Tariyal and Stephen Gire met at an infectious disease lab at Harvard, where they were alarmed by the number of women’s health issues that go undetected. They realized that women needed a way to perform their own at-home examinations that could identify issues early on in their development.

After doing some initial brainstorming about possible testing procedures, Tariyal realized that a tampon could act as a tool for collecting blood samples. With the addition of the right technology, it could even be used to test for biomarkers that signal certain types of disease. Then, the information could be uploaded to a database where women could track their reproductive health and share test data with their physicians.

NextGen Jane recently closed their first round of seed funding, and their research team has begun conducting clinical trials on the “smart tampon.” It will likely be a while before the product is available however, as there are still a number of hurdles the team will have to overcome to make the smart tampon a reality. The most significant challenge will likely be coming up with a way to reliably conduct a variety of different tests with one device. If it’s successful, the smart tampon could allow women to be more proactive in their healthcare than ever before.